Magazine | November 25, 2019, Issue

The American K–12 Decline

(Caiaimage/Robert Daly/Getty Images)
What to do about falling test results and student rankings?

American education is stumbling, and education reform is running on fumes. Thirty-six years after A Nation at Risk, the searing report by the Reagan-era National Commission on Excellence in Education, achievement scores are flat or sinking. Upon the late-October release of 2019’s National Assessment results, Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the federal unit responsible for the assessment, stated, “Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest-performing students are doing worse. In fact, over the long term, in reading, the lowest-performing students — those readers who struggle the most — have made no progress from the first NAEP administration almost 30 years ago.”

Nor is that the end of it. On October 30, the American College Testing program (ACT) reported, “A slight decline in college readiness is continuing in general, particularly longer-term downward trends in math and English, which were identified last year. In fact, the percentages of graduates meeting the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in math and English are the lowest they’ve been in 15 years.” Among 1.8 million ACT test-takers in 2019 — about half the high-school graduating class — just 26 percent reached the “college-ready” benchmarks in all four subjects tested, while a woeful 36 percent met none of them. 

One can find bits of encouraging news over the past several decades, but it takes some effort to see them, and every bright cloud has a dark lining. Yes, poor and minority kids are doing better in the early grades, especially in math, yet just 14 percent of black and 20 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders are identified as “proficient” in that subject. Yes, high-school-graduation rates are up, but corners are being cut all over, through ersatz “credit recovery” courses for kids who have failed; “bridge programs” — that’s the Maryland term — for those who can’t pass states’ end-of-course exams; and some outright fudging of grades, scores, and attendance records.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is being outpaced by dozens of other countries. In the most recent international assessment (2015), for example, we didn’t make it into the list of top ten countries in math or science or reading. While our economy has much else going for it, it’s hard to imagine how we won’t eventually be bested by nations where the work force is better educated and more skilled.

Would-be reformers and policymakers need to think hard about what must change. It’s madness to suppose that continuing on our present course will yield better results — and I say this as one who has energetically pursued that course for many years. 

I’m pleased with two giant attitudinal shifts during my time in the reform trenches. We’ve come to judge schools by their results rather than their resources, programs, and intentions. And we no longer take for granted that almost all children will attend the district-operated public schools nearest to their home. Though far from universally adopted, the principle that families should be able to choose their children’s schools has gained wide acceptance, and the standards and assessments by which we gauge school outcomes are much improved.

All that deserves praise. But it’s nowhere near enough. Far too many “schools of choice” are mediocre or worse; far too few are really good; and millions of parents seem content with schools that are welcoming, safe, and convenient, whether or not their pupils are learning much. As for school outcomes, we see a big shift toward “social and emotional learning” and away from results-based accountability for academic achievement. In part, this is because meager gains have been so discouraging — and resistant to change. In addition, people are weary of testing, governmental oversight, and a too-tight focus on reading and math.

Nor can one detect a heartbeat in the bipartisan consensus that long sustained education reform after A Nation at Risk. It’s a victim of today’s schismatic politics and of the present obsession among many educators, funders, and reform organizations with identity — race, class, and gender — and “social justice.” So we see, for example, leading Democratic candidates for the White House repudiating the charter schools they previously promoted even as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos overstates what charters and choice can do to reverse the decline in test scores.

Surely, providing more great school options — and the right to choose among them — should remain high on the reform agenda. Surely, too, we should continue to take reading and math scores seriously and judge schools in considerable part by their pupils’ performance in these subjects. The mounting opposition to both strategies must be fought with imagination and vigor. But nobody should kid himself that we can change the direction of the immense vessel that’s American K–12 education by adding a couple of thousand charter schools to today’s 7,000, or by further tinkering with standards and testing.

Potentially more fruitful, albeit coming with ample political and ideological challenges as well as the ever-present risk of unintended consequences, is fresh thinking about incentives. For starters, our whole primary and secondary system is oriented toward readying kids for college; that’s how kids and schools and teachers get rewarded. Yet that focus is misplaced. Not everyone wants or needs to go to college, and there’s no way that all can be prepared to succeed there. We need to give equal attention to equipping other young people for decent jobs. Long scorned as vocational training, “career and technical education” (CTE), in today’s trendy term for it, is gaining ground in some states and communities, and also receiving some federal funding. Yet the U.S. has a vast distance to go to approach the sophisticated technical-education systems of Europe and parts of Asia.

At the same time, our incentive-and-reward system needs to shift from preparation to attainment. Let’s gauge schools not by whether their graduates are “ready” for college or jobs but by how many earn college degrees or get hired and retained in jobs. Let’s also fund schools at least in part according to those outcomes, which are far more tangible and consequential than test scores. Let’s fund educators that way, too, with sizable bonuses and promotions calibrated to how their students fare at the next stage. 

The kids need clearer incentives, too. A fraction of them are striving today, but many are coasting through school, encouraged by inflated grades, bolstered by kind-hearted attention to their emotional well-being, and confident that they’ll be promoted, graduated, and admitted to — at least — a community college, no matter how little they study or learn. Besides receiving better counseling and more-honest grading, they need to know, along with their parents, that they’ll get from third grade to fourth only if they pass the state’s threshold reading test, get into high school only if they’re proficient in the core subjects, and get diplomas only if they succeed not just on academic end-of-course exams but also in apprenticeships, internships, and the skill demonstrations required by advanced CTE classes.

If we get the incentives right for schools, educators, and students alike, we have a chance of moving American education forward. If instead we settle for more of the same, further disappointment lies ahead.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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