Secret school success

We’re not all going to hell in a hand basket, argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. “The last 15 years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students — the very children that have been the focus of two decades of reform.”

 . . . For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

This means low-income and minority students are “achieving one, two, and sometimes three grade levels higher than their counterparts in the early 1990s were,” Petrilli writes.

What happened? States that adopted accountability systems made big gains in the ’90s and “the stragglers made big progress once No Child Left Behind forced them to follow suit,” he argues.

NCLB doesn’t hold schools accountable for history, civics, and geography; neither do most states. But “poor and minority kids are stronger readers now, so they can better read the social studies exams and answer more questions correctly,” Petrilli theorizes.

The debate should be about trade-offs, he writes. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their schools may be turning to scripted lessons and squeezing out art and music. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but principals and teachers have more incentive to cheat on tests. “Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their more affluent, higher-achieving peers are making fewer gains. Is it worth it?”

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  1. Something you must also keep in mind when you talk about how scores have changed over time is whether the tests and standards have also changed. If the “cheating” isn’t by teachers or students, but is in fact by administrators who lower standards and rewrite tests so that they can demonstrate “progress”, things are potentially worse for everybody.

    If in fact poor and minority students are becoming stronger readers, that’s a very good thing. To the extent that you’re suggesting that inner city schools may be turning into “test prep academies,” my concern would be that the tricks they use to help kids do better on tests might not translate well into other contexts. But I don’t think test prep is the primary reason for the loss of music and art programs – haven’t they always been the first to go when school districts run short of money?

  2. I find it interesting that, in today’s context, art and music are defined only as instruction by specific art and music teachers. When I was in a small-town ES, in the 50s, my clasroom teachers would have been insulted by the idea that they did not include music and art in their regular instruction. Admittedly, this translated largely to art history and music appreciation, but we were taught a great deal. In music, we learned the various patriotic and folk songs and listened to jazz, dixieland, musicals and the various classical genres, including the composers. Art covered primarily the Western tradition, but I remember some exposure to pre-Columbian, Asian and African art, as well. Regular classroom teachers can’t be expected to teach instrumental performance or anything beyond the very basic art skills, but the absence of art and music teachers shouldn’t prevent kids from learning about either subject.

    That said, the goal should not be to equalize achievement, which is impossible at any level beyond breathing, but to ensure that all kids make progress every year. All kids of normal IQ should make a year’s progress every year, kids above that should make significantly more than a year’s progress and kids with cognitive/other handicaps should make progress reflective of their degree of handicap.