Progress In School Reform: What Is The Picture We See?

Summary: While by some measures the school reform movement has come up with little but goose eggs in the national aggregate, a more nuanced approach to school change makes clear that improvements do occur in substantial ways, in a cultural context that makes such gains truly heavy lifting.
My friends, you may have heard me nail the stagnant character of this country’s educational progress to a financial cross in my last post. Time to crawl down from that mount a bit, and look more closely at the data which, true to data form, is more nuanced than the headlines and those most loudly mouthed might have us believe.
I thank Catherine Rampell, syndicated columnist, for my comeuppance. She points out that on the long term version of the National Assessment of Educational ProgressN (NAEP), one of the nation’s leading measures of educational progress, there has been a steady rise in scores on the reading and math sections, particularly for 9 and 13 year olds, since 1971. The fact that these results are modest, and over forty years, and that we seem not to be making progress against the skills of First World students around the globe may obscure this truth in some eyes.
Less ambiguously, greater gains than in the population wide picture have been carved out by African-American and Latino kids during the same forty plus years, which means that the gap between white students and these particular students of color has narrowed, though not been eliminated.
In a nation where recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have catalyzed once again awareness of separate societies, the one roiling still with anger, these gains may reflect progress we might well note in the centuries long climb out of slavery and Jim Crow. Clearly, not enough, and a long way to go, but part of the picture if we are to be clear eyed.
In addition, according to Rampell, drop-out rates have declined, which brings to mind echoes of the long term success of Head Start. In the latter, though academic gains in early years do not sustain as robustly as we would wish, alums of Head Start nonetheless do better in the long run than their less fortunate peers who didn’t have that advantage. The implication when drop-out rates go down is that individuals have developed better “grit,” perhaps like Head Start alums, and sustain their skill development longer, which we like to think translates into better preparedness to earn a living.
From my counseling point of view, it may be that kids respond to the extra attention of programs like Head Start and drop-out prevention by gaining faith through these networks, even subconsciously, that they belong, and so persevere. The gains documented in various mentor programs have tapped the same nerve; is it surprising that kids who sense caring in the adults around them make advances?
No doubt a significant part of the hand wringing over school progress stems from radical changes in the global labor market. The continuing rise of technological solutions mandates an increased level of education and sophisticated skills training in the work force than was true ten, twenty years ago. The bar has sprung upward quickly, which magnifies our urgent need to upgrade the prospects for our kids, and muddies any objective assessment of gains.
The fact that change is more apparent in microcosm than in the national view and then sluggish and uneven, should not surprise us; what we have here is a cultural transformation that is messy and hard to command from the federal level or other centralized pulpit.
As a culture we continue to struggle with the demons remaining from our slavery past, in the psyches of white and black, and in the structure of opportunity throughout institutions, public and private.
We are still mightily an immigrant country which, despite the political battles over undocumented immigration from lands south of us, nonetheless continues to educate the children of these migrations, here in a land and in a language that is often unfamiliar to them.
We are also paradoxically a culture of privilege in which some of our children have failed to learn the utility of hard work, the need to persevere in difficulty, and the uses of deferred gratification.
As if these challenges are not enough, the difficulty of assessment may also in substantial measure be a by-product of those political wars between right and left, and their schisms of night and day in which it sometimes seems the camps live in totally separate realities.
So how do we know? Our nearest chance for a useful epistemology is to gather pieces of the puzzle from assorted sources, and put them together in a kind of gestalt – where have we arrived, and where do we go from here? As always, at least some of that picture is going to be in the eyes of the beholder.

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One Response to Progress In School Reform: What Is The Picture We See?

  1. Deb says:

    Good read, Mr. Brand. Frustrations continue at the frontline. 🙂

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