Well, once again the headlines are full of doom and gloom about America’s public schools and the achievement of our students. A recent Washington Post headline reads, “SAT scores at lowest level in 10 years, fueling worries about high schools.” The story goes on to note that the average SAT score for the Class of 2015 was 1,490 out of a maximum 2,400 as reported by the College Board, down 7 points from the previous year.
While we could go into many variables that impact scoring trends, like the increased number of students taking the exam (lower participation generally leads to higher scores), rising levels of poverty, growing language barriers, and low levels of parental education and social ills that plague many of our more urban neighborhoods, I would like to focus first on the fact that, despite what many would like for you to believe, our public schools and the students they serve are achieving more today than ever before in the long history of the American institution we know as public education.
In Rick Dufour’s latest book, “In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better,” Dr. Dufour defends the work of today’s educators in the light of the many failed attempts of “reformers” to improve (or abandon) public education. But he does not stop with the “atta boys…and girls” and “self-inflicted pats on the back” for public educators. He also helps us see the value in owning our responsibility to individually and collectively take the needed steps to improve both learning for our students and those of us charged with educating them. Dufour puts our mission into clear and honest perspective with a profound statement, “Our profession will not benefit from either unloving critics or uncritical lovers.”
“In Praise of American Educators” includes many examples of why we can’t just allow the many critics to portray public education as a failure without proactively providing real evidence to the contrary. The evidence of success of today’s public school teachers and the students they serve include many factors such as record-setting high school graduation rates, more students than ever taking and succeeding in more rigorous classes, steady improvement (yes improvement) in test scores, continued parent satisfaction with his/her local public schools, positive feedback from students about the ever-increasing important factor of the teacher-student relationship, and a focus on meeting the needs of a diverse student population like this nation has never seen before in its history.
But without taking the time to dig into the rationale being touted among those insistent on criticizing today’s educators, one would never realize the successes of public education. As Rick Dufour so eloquently reminds us, critics simply have to point out student performance, or perceived lack thereof, in the context of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and international assessments like the Program for International Assessment (PISA) to sway public opinion against our schools. But an honest look into the data associated with American students’ performance not only reveals consistent improvement, it exposes the real agenda of naysayers.
We’ve all heard plenty about NCLB and its mandate that every student be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014. You may not know that in the state of Missouri “proficient” has always been associated with “above grade level” performance. So, we aren’t saying that all students will reach an average level of achievement but rather that they would all be above average. I was never real strong at math myself, but I think this is a statistical improbability. Every student proficient was a lofty goal and one we all worked hard to achieve, always knowing that “perfection” was not likely to ever be met.
Maybe even more blatantly exposing an agenda to defame public education was the fact that a school, or even an entire district, would be deemed as “failing” if as few as 30 students within a disaggregated subgroup were not proficient in either reading or math. This included children with identified learning disabilities forced to take the assessments without normal accommodations, children who struggled with the English language, and those with a multitude of other challenges they brought with them to the classroom -- the most impactful of which was a life of poverty. This is not to say that we, as educators, were to use these factors as excuses, but rather that they needed to be acknowledged as variables that could impact the rate at which improvement might occur.
And then there is NAEP, a congressionally mandated assessment of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds given every four years. Results of the NAEP are traditionally shared as part of the Nation’s Report Card and used by many to tell the story of a failing public school system. There are some things you should probably know about NAEP. For instance, did you know that the standards assessed by NAEP are determined by a 26-member governing board appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Education? Of the 26 members there are only six so-called practitioners (three teachers, two principals and one superintendent) with the rest of the group made up of governors, legislators, state education officials and board members, business representatives, so-called assessment experts and four members of the general public.
Maybe more troubling than who is making up these standards is the approach to identifying what standards will actually be assessed. The governing board deems the setting of these standards as a function it can determine in isolation without the value of technical support of other experts and with no effort to truly verify the assessment’s validity. As a result, the NAEP scoring levels are set at what most identify as impossibly high. Sounding familiar, Missouri? An example of evidence offered by Dr. Dufour includes the fact that American fourth- and eighth-graders scored in the top 10 percent in the world on the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments, while the Nation’s Report Card reported only 33 percent of fourth-graders were proficient and 7 percent advanced in math according to NAEP. For eighth-graders, the percent proficient and advanced was 27 percent and 85 percent respectively the same year. Similar statistics were revealed for science in the fourth grade, while eighth-graders did not take the NAEP science assessment that year.
Agency after agency has come out denouncing the NAEP and its flawed approach to setting standards of assessment and scoring levels. In fact, as noted by Dr. Dufour, in 2001 Congress mandated that NAEP results come with a disclaimer that achievement levels only be used on a trial basis and interpreted with caution until determined “reasonable, valid, and informative to the public.” (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012b). They never have. In essence, NAEP exists to paint a picture of failure for those who wish to believe it.
Finally, critics of American public education love to compare the achievement of our students to those from around the world on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This is an international assessment given to a random sample of 15-year-olds every three years in the areas of reading, math and science. On the 2012 assessment, the U.S. ranked 27th in math, 17th in reading and 20th in science among the 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. Of course these critics use this information as proof that our schools are failing as compared to other nations, with little attention to the many factors impacting performance.
Now bear with me a little longer as I attempt to make a point; I know this is a long blog entry. Disregarding all the other differences in philosophy and approach between our nation and others, like the fact that every citizen has a right to a free and appropriate public education as a founding principle of our democracy, let’s simply look at the impact of one variable on these comparative results through the writing of Dr. Dufour -- poverty.
Try as I might I am not able to say it any better so the following is an excerpt from Dufour’s “In Praise of American Educators” (page 26).
“The next chapter examines the differences between educational policies in Finland and the United States. At this point, however, let us put the achievements of these two countries in a larger context. Of all the nations participating in the PISA assessments, the United States has by far the largest number of students living in poverty. Finland has approximately a 3 percent poverty rate. If PISA scores just from American schools with up to 10 percent of their students living in poverty are compared to Finland’s, American student achievement far exceeds Finland’s. If the United States’ schools with up to 25 percent of students living in poverty were considered as a nation, the United States would still rank first in the world among industrialized countries (Rebell & Wolff, 2012). But fourteen thousand elementary schools and three thousand secondary schools, or nearly 20 percent of all the schools in the United States, serve student populations with more than 75 percent of students living in poverty. These schools consistently scored near the bottom of the country rankings on PISA and drag down our national average (Shyamalan, 2013).”
Look around the State of Missouri and locate the school districts that are struggling. Without exception you will find high rates of poverty. It is a real factor that deserves support not criticism from our state legislators, state officials, and colleagues like you and me.
No, my fellow educators, supportive families and hard-working students, America’s schools and their teachers are not failing. On the contrary, we are achieving some of the best results ever witnessed in our country in some of the most challenging times. Whether it be a national viewpoint of public school students’ achievement or a look through our local or state lens, we must stay in touch with reality and at the same time strive for continuous improvement in spite of what that reality might lead some to believe about our ability to help our diverse and challenged student population achieve at high levels.
I only hope that in our own Missouri state capitol and in our own Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, individuals can begin to acknowledge some of the real challenge our schools and their students are facing AND overcoming in the continuous battle to overcome the variable of poverty in our schools. With more than half of America’s public school children entering our doors burdening this load, let’s not burden them and their schools further with punishments and sanctions in a “no good deed goes unpunished” environment. This is no way to improve our schools or their effectiveness in working with children of poverty. Rather, let’s provide assistance and support to overcome, to succeed where it can sometimes feel improbable. Don’t give up on our schools.
Now this isn’t to say we should go back to a world without accountability. As Dr. Dufour says, “Our profession will not benefit from either unloving critics or uncritical lovers.” (Author’s note: Another thing I’ve learned from Dr. Dufour in my Professional Learning Community journey is that redundancy is sometimes a must. : ) As educators, let’s own our collective responsibility to meet the needs of each student each day, reaching for daily improvement of ourselves, those around us, and most of all our students. And for the policymakers, hear our plea for real support in a collaborative culture to improve our schools in lieu of the existing culture of punishment and, what at times seems to model the national agenda to see the death of the ever-successful American Institution known as public education.
I know this was a long blog post and I appreciate those that stayed with me to the end. These words from the heart are a result of long pent-up emotion and the inspiration I have received from just the first 27 pages of Dr. Dufour’s latest book. (He doesn’t know it, but he has had a major influence on my leadership and passion for meeting the needs of our students.) If Chapters 3-11 have as much to offer, you are likely to hear from me again on similar subjects. Until then, let’s celebrate our amazing teachers across this nation as they start another school year in the dedication of their lives to a profession that at times offers little in the form of extrinsic reward -- but has so much to offer intrinsically every day. God bless you all and thanks so much for all you do for the children of the greatest nation, the United States of America.
Dr. David McGehee