First Person

Wishful Thinking

I suppose it was wishful thinking on skoolboy’s part to hope that we could escape a release of new scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) with just a soundbite from Margaret Spellings, who served as Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009.  Today’s Washington Post features her op-ed piece arguing that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which she once referred to as “99.9% pure,” is the reason that test scores are rising.  A corollary is than any significant alteration to the NCLB reforms is a cowardly retreat from “the real accountability that is working in our elementary and middle schools.”

Key to Madame Secretary’s argument is that scores have risen more rapidly in the NCLB era in both reading and math than in the three decades before that.  “Consider,” she writes.  “In the 10 years since 1999, reading scores for 9-year-olds have risen eight points;  in the nearly three decades before that, scores rose only four points.  In the past 10 years, math scores have increased 11 points, while in the nearly three decades prior, scores rose only 13 points.”

I argued last week that the long-term trend NAEP data are a poor basis for evaluating the effectiveness of reforms such as NCLB, in part because the skills tested on them are not aligned with contemporary curricular standards.  (Math, for example, is weighted towards computation;  and although computation is important, we now expect students to engage in more challenging mathematical content in elementary, middle and high school.)  The main NAEP is a better indicator of trends in recent performance over time.

The first figure below shows reading scores in grades 4 and 8 on the main NAEP from 1998 to 2007.  (Keep in mind that the NAEP scale goes from 0 to 500, so this figure may exaggerate the size of the trends over time.)  In the fourth grade, the average score increased by six points between 2000 and 2002, then stabilized, and finally increased by two points from 2005 to 2007.  The 2007 average score is significantly higher than the scores in 2005, 2003, 2002 and 2000.  In the eighth grade, the average score held steady between 1998 and 2002, and really hasn’t budged much since then.  The 2007 average of 263 is significantly higher than the 2005 average of 262, but is identical to the 2003 average of 263, and is actually a point lower than the 2002 average of 264.  The best summary here is that the scores have been essentially flat since 1998.


The second figure shows math scores in grades 4 and 8 on the main NAEP from 1996 to 2007.  In the fourth grade, there was a huge increase of 10 points from 2000 to 2003, and continued gains in 2003, 2005 and 2007.  The 2007 average score of 240 is five points higher than the average of 235 recorded in 2003, and a whopping 14 points higher than 2000’s average score of 226.  The eighth-grade math pattern is similar, although not as dramatic.  Scores increased by an average of five points from 2000 to 2003, and have crept up since then, reaching a high of 281 in 2007.  The 2007 figure is two points higher than the average of 279 recorded in 2005, and three points higher than the 278 observed in 2003.  It’s also eight points higher than the average of 273 found in 2000.


These figures summarize the trends over time in achievement.  But what portion of those trends can be attributed to NCLB?  Margaret Spellings refers to changes since 1999, which is convenient for her story, because there were sharp increases in grade 4 reading between 2000 and 2002, and in grade 4 and grade 8 math between 2000 and 2003.  But NCLB was signed into law in January, 2002;  the first final regulations dealing with assessment were issued in December, 2002;  and initial state accountability plans were approved by the U.S. Department of Education no later than June, 2003.  The 2003 main NAEP was administered between January and March of 2003.  Is it realistic to claim that NCLB affected scores before the 2003 NAEP administration?  I, and a great many other analysts, think not.

If we look at what’s happened since 2003—i.e., using 2003 as a baseline—we see increases of three points in fourth-grade reading;  flat scores in eighth-grade reading;  an increase of five points in fourth-grade math, and a rise of three points in eighth-grade math.  With the exception of eighth-grade reading, these trends are encouraging, and provide some support for the claim that NCLB is working. 

However, part of Spellings’ argument is that scores have been increasing faster in the NCLB era than they were before.  And the evidence here is not as supportive of NCLB.  In fourth-grade reading, scores rose one point from 1998 to 2003, and three points from 2003 to 2007, consistent with the claim of faster growth under NCLB.  In eighth-grade reading, scores declined by a point from 1998 to 2003, and have been unchanged since then-no growth to speak of over the 1998-2007 period.  In math, however, fourth-grade scores rose from 224 in 1996 to 235 in 2003, and this 11-point gain, all of which occurred prior to NCLB, dwarfs the five-point increase observed between 2003 and 2007.  Similarly, the six-point gain in eighth-grade math between 1996 and 2003 is twice as large as the three-point gain we see between 2003 and 2007.  On balance, the evidence does not support the claim that NAEP scores have increased faster under NCLB than before.

Only in Margaret Spellings’ world can NCLB affect NAEP scores for the four years before the law was passed and implemented.  Now that’s wishful thinking.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.