Ed Reformer: Does self interest make us Debbie downers?

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For over 50 years, Americans have worried about our students' mediocre performance on international tests. A single-minded focus on rankings--not only in the media, but also bouncing around the echo chamber of the education reform community--meant that the nation has missed a recent and significant opportunity to celebrate some success.

I worry that the ed reformers, us included, are often guilty of highlighting bad news to stress the need for reform. But our habit of only seeing the black cloud and never the silver lining is just plain demoralizing. That's why I want to highlight some good news.

Last month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of its 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While the news media expressed disappointment at our overall performance—down in math and flat in science and reading—they pretty much ignored this chart.


It turns out that the US is showing some surprising success at significantly narrowing socioeconomic achievement gaps in science. The percentage of students in the bottom quarter of socioeconomic status but the top quarter of academic performance – went up 12.3 percentage points in science since 2006, an increase eight times the OECD average. High achievers now comprise 31.5 percent of the bottom quarter in the U.S. (above the OECD average). The OECD reported that the "United States shows the largest improvements in equity during this period."

I ran this data by Education Trust, as well as some esteemed scholars including Eric Hanushek, none of whom surfaced any obvious reason to dismiss the results.

Said U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr., "Data show that the relationship between poverty and student achievement has declined in recent years, at least in science, with students' socioeconomic status becoming a less reliable predictor of performance… Socioeconomic status accounted for 11 percent of the variation in student performance in 2015 – down 6 percentage points from 2006. And the U.S. has made more progress in closing the socioeconomic achievement gap than any other PISA country."

People, this is good news plain and simple. Even though our low SES students continue to score lower than their wealthier peers, the science score gap is below the OECD average. The average science score of our lowest-achieving students went up 18 score points.

Some reformers dismiss these findings for reasons I can't appreciate—and which I suspect reside in our penchant for the negative. It's easier to call for changes by harping on the bad news. And yet, by constantly emphasizing the negative, we play into the hands of those who would completely dismantle public education. If all the public hears is bad news about our education system, and the constant reforms never seem to result in good news about improvement, eventually they will give up on reform and public education both and agree to some form of privatization.

Those of us in the education community need to present an accurate picture of what is happening in our schools, the good as well as the bad. At NCTQ we are striving to take a more positive tone, balancing positive and negative findings as appropriate and if we can do it, anyone can. For instance, our December Landscape report on undergraduate teacher prep programs educating elementary teachers emphasized the progress since our last Teacher Prep Review – especially in reading. And later this year we will announce the winners of our Great Districts for Great Teachers competition, recognizing the districts that most successfully support great teaching.