The Facts Need a Champion

January 07, 2014 | by Dan Weisberg

I was sitting in front of my computer with MSNBC on in the background the other night, when my curiosity was piqued by a lead-in for an education piece. The host, Chris Hayes, was joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten, Derrell Bradford, a NJ-based education reformer, and Sabrina Stevens, an education activist and former AFT staffer, to discuss the recently released results on PISA, an international test in math, science and reading.

There’s no disputing that the results are pretty dismal—15-year-olds in the United States ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science and 20th in reading among participating industrialized countries. But the conversation about the PISA results was just as depressing.

Hayes argued that these results were a reflection of income inequality, not the poor quality of our schools, that we rank near the bottom because we have “so many test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.” It’s a ridiculous assertion, and one that is easily disproved by a close look at the data, which compare the performance of students with similar socio-economic backgrounds around the globe. The wealthiest American 15-year-olds, for example—those in the top socio-economic quartile—rank 26th in math compared to their affluent peers elsewhere. In other words, poverty does not explain the poor performance of our K-12 education system. (Amanda Ripley has more on this, which you can read here.)

But that’s not what bothered me most. Weingarten’s takeaway was that “for the last 10 years, the basic strategy in terms of American public education has been test, test, test, test, test. And that, actually, I think, is showing that that hyper-testing of students, mass closing of schools, sanctioning of teachers, is not the strategy that works when you look at the other countries that have kind of lapped over us.”  

There is some irony in the fact that Weingarten was using test data to bolster her argument that there is too much testing, but what really struck me was the juxtaposition between her talking points and the results that were just reported in our shared hometown, New York City. If there is one district she would cite as the worst example of the “test, test, test, test, test” strategies that she holds responsible for poor student achievement, it would be New York, where she personally led a movement to oppose closing failing schools, firing persistently poor-performing teachers and introducing accountability for schools and educators based, in part, on students’ test scores. And yet, since Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected to office in 2001 and began to make these important changes, four-year graduation rates have increased to 66 percent from 46.5 percent, and the dropout rate has dropped to 10 percent from 22 percent.

What makes this trend remarkable is that during that same period, high school graduation requirements were changed to become far more rigorous, including by raising minimum pass rates on Regents exams. In 2005, only 30 percent of graduating seniors earned prestigious Regents or Advanced Regents diplomas, which require passing scores in five state tests; in 2013, 63 percent of graduating seniors earned those diplomas. During that same time, the number of students taking and passing AP courses doubled, and the number of students taking the SAT increased by 53 percent. College readiness rates, in my mind the gold standard for system effectiveness, have almost doubled since 2005. And gaps in achievement have narrowed—graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students, English language learners and students with disabilities rose at more than double the rate of their white and Asian peers.

These cold numbers represent tens of thousands of young people who are now graduating from high school, armed with the early successes that research shows lead to higher earnings and better life outcomes. Under the pre-reform system, these students wouldn’t have made it through high school, simple as that.

And research also shows that these gains were not achieved through happenstance. They were caused, in part, by the very policies Randi decries, such as closing failing schools based on test-score-based accountability systems.

So why the cognitive dissonance? While no one should be declaring victory based on these results (a large majority of kids in New York still do NOT graduate college-ready), you might expect that the city’s results (and the most recent NAEP results, which show similarly impressive gains in Washington, D.C. and Tennessee) would give Weingarten and like-minded stakeholders some pause before they continue to issue blanket indictments of the reform agenda.

But when you have the floor to yourself, there’s no reason to slow down the attacks—even in the face of contradictory data.

The reality is that while unions and their allies have the motivation, discipline and resources to get their messages out and repeat them endlessly, the facts have no champion. Sure, the NYC Department of Education has dutifully reported the positive trends in graduation and proficiency rates for several years, but to very little effect.  And those engaged in reform don’t see countering misinformation as a core part of their mission.

Reformers have been under the mistaken impression that the facts—both about the need for and the direction of change—will, by themselves, carry the day. They won’t. When the United States ranks 30th in the world in math, the burden of proof should be on those arguing against change. But rhetoric about “hyper-testing” and “blaming teachers” is easier to swallow, and until the truth emerges as a compelling alternative, this misleading tripe will continue to drown out press releases about graduation rates or test scores—even though each one of those data points is a real student, a child with a real future that will demonstrably better because their schools and teachers did a better job. I don’t know what’s more compelling than that, and yet those stories are being drowned out by the anti-test hype.

The message that reform is succeeding has to be carried by those outside of the power structure. People are justifiably skeptical about claims of success by the government itself. And that’s where groups like TNTP, and our peers in the field, have an important role. But our voice will be much more powerful if it is part of a coordinated, consistent effort by advocates, students, community leaders and anyone else who knows that turning the clock back to the era when the adults in the system were more comfortable would be a tragedy for the kids. The facts need a champion.

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