Paul Peterson, prolific and distinguished Harvard professor, has written a blog post discussing in more depth his WSJ Op-Ed on the apparent growth of the black-white achievement gap under President Obama, based a recent NAEP report discussing achievement gap trends from 1971 (in this circumstance, saying the more PC opportunity gap seems a little silly, but you can read my thoughts on the matter here). Most people agree that the tests implemented by NAEP paint the best picture of our country’s achievement, since there are no incentives tied to the test and it is rigorous and in depth (it can be, since only a sample of students take each part of the test).
The NAEP report paints what I would argue as an overly optimistic picture by comparing the achievement gap to its 1971 levels. Newsflash: We’ve improved since then! Given that desegregation was just gaining steam at that time, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But Peterson draws equally uninformative and much more manipulative conclusions from the same very useful data. Peterson argues that in general, the achievement gap diminished between 1999 and 2008, or from about when NCLB was passed to the end of the Bush administration. This is true. He then shows that the gap decreased at a slower rate between 2008-2012, and even got bigger in one instance. Also true. But then, he says the following in defining what each testing period signifies:
“1999 – when state and national accountability systems were beginning to be put into place and Clinton and Bush were both giving the idea their bipartisan support, including the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB);
2008 – the last year of a gasping Bush Administration, when opponents of NCLB were gaining the upper hand;
and, now, with its latest release,
2012 – when an anti-NCLB administration has been in power for several years”
He goes on to explain that the Obama administration
“dropped billions of additional dollars into local school district coffers while administratively gutting NCLB. A new approach was activated via Race to the Top and via waiver policies that have allowed 40 states to substitute the rules set forth by the Obama team in lieu of any remaining NCLB requirements.”
Here’s the problem: Sure, Bush left office in 2008, and sure, Obama was generally more critical of NCLB, but there was no substantive change in education policy immediately. If you remember, we were focused mainly at stopping the recession and keeping our banking system from collapsing. By far, the largest portion of the educational stimulus was just to keep mass layoffs from taking place in light of a falling tax base due to the recession. That’s not a new educational policy, that’s ensuring continuation of the previous policy in light of new circumstances. I don’t think many districts have felt like the past half decade was an experiment in riches, hence books like this (the author was ironically interviewed by Education Next, where Peterson’s post was published). More deceptively, Peterson misconstrues the Duncan’s waiver policies, certainly a step away from NCLB, as being reflected in then 2012 NAEP data. No waivers were granted before 2012, therefore the NAEP tests given the very same year of course will not show their effect. Plus, let’s not forget the waivers are the logical conclusion of a policy that codifies the expectation of all schools being on track for 100% proficiency by 2014 while providing no actual support in reaching this laughably idealistic goal. Unless we wanted just to hire companies to “turn-around” almost every school in the nation…
To be fair, RTTT was accepting applications by 2010, so it’s not unreasonable to expect the changes outlined in the various RTTT grant proposals to show some impact by now. Many critics have reasonably argued that RTTT has created a lot of talk by states and districts, and not necessarily any follow-through. Still, it will take more than two years to measure if the policies incentivized by RTTT were a. implemented widespread and faithfully and b. correlated with improved NAEP scores.
A final thing that really bugged me about Peterson’s analysis was the way he lumped in the 1999-2004 and the 2004-2008 time periods into one. Sure, they reflect one policy agenda (though many would argue Obama is a continuation of this agenda), but lumping them together disguises an interesting trend. To help clarify what Peterson attempts to hide, I made a chart of the change in the Black-White achievement gap for each age group and subject over the course of each major reform period (so negative numbers mean the achievement gap diminished). How we define these reform periods is obviously a nuanced question, especially because states adopt reforms at different paces. I decided to create five groups.
1. Pre-nation at risk (-1983), where desegregation was one of the strongest forces in education reform, and standards were beginning to gain strength on a state by state basis.
2. Early standards movement- (1983-199)- This attempts to capture the increasing focus on standards and accountability led by the federal government but implemented in diverse ways by states.
3. Early NCLB (1999-2004)- I am separating this into its own phase because there are uniform differences in the results and because its a noted phenomenon that reform movements lose steam over time.
4. Middle NCLB (2004-2008)- This is where a lot of the critiques of NCLB began to gain steam. Many hard accountability folks like Diane Ravitch switched teams. More schools were realizing that the targets prescribed were impossible, and were facing penalties and threats.
5. Late NCLB (2008-2012)- Again, not much actually changes until waivers are granted in 2012. There was a bit more money invested to counteract the recession. There was some RTTT activity starting in 2010.
Here’s my chart, which is scrappily created from the NAEP provided graphs below. The darker the green the greater the progress in closing the achievement gap per year.
A few discussion points:
NCLB and the slowdown of progress
So what Peterson fails to mention is if you look at the NCLB era, it is clear that it started with a lot of improvement, but began losing steam well before Obama took office. The gap closed three times slower in reading and twice as slow in math between 2004-2008. While I wasn’t teaching at this time (indeed I was in high school), this is not surprising. While perhaps there was some low-hanging fruit in switching to the NCLB mentality (forcing teachers to expect proficiency from all teachers, thinking in terms of accountability/mastery/learning goals) in the most recalcitrant schools, by 2004 most teachers had learned to be a bit more test oriented. But without much support, or good professional development, or new resources, and with many strong teachers leaving the profession as a result of accountability, it’s no surprise that the closing began to stagnate. As surely should not be a surprise, the progress of NCLB continued to diminish between 2008-2012 since again, very little changed substantively. In general, I think we should expect continual diminishing returns to federal/state/district level reforms unless more effort is made to continually improve them in light of teacher needs and reactions. To claim that these results evidence that we need to go back to NCLB policies is at best obtuse and at worst purposefully deceptive.
State-led standards movements don’t really work…or is it something else?
I am not a historian, but the slowdown in growth in terms of lessening the achievement gap is incredibly robust in this time period. Perhaps it is unfair to blame this on a nascent standards movement. Another possible cause could be the resegregation of schools due to white flight, which took hold around 1988.
What happened in the 1970s?!
While NCLB was able to instill strong growth for four years, the 10+ YEAR period up to 1983 had the strongest and most consistent gains in closing the achievement gap (And how tragically ironic that Nation at Risk, our greatest educational crisis, was published at the end of this strong period, resulting in our standards-based trek into a decade and a half of mediocrity). What was going on and what can we learn?
This is where I need some help from historians or (really) veteran teachers. Did school desegregation have this much of an impact? If so what can we learn from that? Were these gains just a result of picking the low hanging fruit by ending such a long previous period of separate and unequal schools?