Elliot Regenstein On NAEP Next Steps

After the long term trend NAEP was released last year a few folks offered their takes here including Sandy Kress, Denise Forte, Morgan Polikoff, and Marguerite Roza. I’m not going to repeat that because I’m not sure how different responses would be after last week’s state NAEP release. I was discussing that release with Elliot Regenstein and at some point said, that would make a good post, write it? And he did. So here’s a guest blog from Elliot:

After last week’s release of new NAEP scores, Andy wrote about NAEP in the Bellwether newsletter titled “Meeting the Moment After NAEP.” He pointed out that one of the overlooked stories of NAEP was the increase in the number of students performing at the “below basic” level.  He describes these children as “the students we’re most concerned with here at Bellwether.” They’re in fact the students many of us are most concerned with – and while the new NAEP scores show incremental expansion of that category, they don’t actually show a fundamental change in the dynamics of the overall education system. 

In my new book, Education Restated, I talk about how the education system has been failing to meet the moment for too many students … for a long, long series of moments. To be clear, the book doesn’t offer any specific insights about the latest NAEP scores, nor are its strategies focused on improving NAEP scores; I don’t want to commit misNAEPery. But moments like these cause a lot of policymakers and pundits to jump up and say, “Let’s respond to this crisis by doing the thing I already proposed doing before the crisis.” Forgive me, please, for being part of that chorus; my book did just come out, and I couldn’t resist.

One thing the NAEP scores have already sparked is a whole set of conversations about what it takes to catch kids up when they’re behind. But for years the blind spot of the accountability movement has actually been the years when we could prevent kids from getting behind in the first place: birth through third grade. Our entire federally-driven school accountability system focuses on what happens after third grade – but as the song says, by the time you hear the siren it’s already too late. 

And here’s the problem. We have a lot of data on what happens after third grade, and what it tells us is that about 15% of school districts are providing kids with 1.1 years of growth per year. If that can be sustained throughout a child’s career, it’s amazing. But that also means that if a cohort of kids is more than a year behind at the end of second grade, even those high-performing districts won’t have that cohort caught up by the end of high school. And as we’ve now learned, the number of kids who are falling behind early in their academic careers is only growing.

So in my book, I propose a few policy strategies aimed at helping the children who need the most help: 

  • Refocusing education accountability to include the years before third grade – not by expanding testing into younger years, but by taking emerging best practices in early childhood accountability and expanding them upward. Specifically, it means not just looking at outcomes but also looking at the quality of teacher-child interaction. Which, as a pleasant side effect, provides much more actionable feedback than standardized test scores.
  • Paying teachers what they’re actually worth. And by that I mean not just paying them more (although that’s part of it); I mean acknowledging that the market for teachers treats as equivalent jobs that really aren’t. Is the candidate pool for a math position at a high school where most children are years behind the same as the candidate pool for a first-grade teacher at a high-performing school?  Of course not. But if those schools are in the same district, then odds are that those jobs would be listed for the same salary.  There’s a reason we’ve had the exact same teacher shortages for decades, and it’s that we’re systematically paying too little for certain teaching roles relative to others.
  • “School choice” debates are often framed as a tug-of-war between traditional public schools and some combination of charters or vouchers. But that frame is far too narrow, and has emerged only because district boundaries – and attendance boundaries within districts – have been far too limiting on family choice. And where inter-district choice programs have emerged they’ve too often been an escape hatch for wealthy families, not a real strategy for helping the students who need it most. Rethinking the meaning of political lines and the incentive structures of choice would give families more options to help their children succeed.

As I said, these proposals aren’t inspired by the NAEP results, nor are they focused on the needs of the cohorts included in the most recent NAEP scores. But to some degree they’re inspired by moments like these, when various factions within the education community push for their preferred solutions. My goal in writing the book was to try to find some areas of potential agreement among politicians and pundits who think they’re on opposing sides of these issues (and many others). Because of those historical divides, political moments like these have a tendency to produce activities that are reflexive and cosmetic, rather than thoughtful and systemic. My hope is that at least some of the energy we’re seeing now will be directed toward longer-term solutions – and that if the issues addressed in my book end up on the table, I hope that its recommendations will prove useful. 

Elliot Regenstein is a partner at Foresight Law + Policy.