Buck Up!

When my daughters were pre-teens they came home from school one day alarmed. During a lesson on climate change the teacher or some part of the lesson, it was never quite clear, had basically stated that absent radical attention to warming there would be little hope for survivability on earth after 2030. This was during peak Thunberg-mania.

I remember having a few thoughts. First, I’m someone deeply concerned about climate change but this isn’t what the evidence shows and is a bananas lesson. But also, even assuming this is what the evidence convincingly shows, these are really young kids, what would be the point of telling them anyway?

This episode occurred to me recently in the context of the constant, and weirdly fashionable, bellyaching by reformers about how education reform has accomplished so little if anything at all. Oddly this is one place reformers and anti-reformers seem to agree these days, even as the evidence indicates it’s not true. What’s more, even assuming it was in fact the case, if you’re an advocate why the hell would you run around braying?

Has everything gone swimmingly, of course not. But in the context of U.S. social policy, until a few years ago we were making what would be considered good progress. (It’s worth noting how long social policy change takes in a country like this – perhaps the recent quite rapid progress in issues like gay and transgender rights has skewed perceptions.)

Until ESSA and the Obama Administration’s decision to throw in the towel on accountability student achievement was on a steady, if modest, growth path. Students furthest from opportunity were making gains. Not enough, but gains. The pandemic, of course, scrambled everything but we should not lose sight of those earlier trajectories – that are averages across an entire student population. People will argue about counterfactuals and the pace of change, but “barely budged,” which you often hear, this is not.

Here’s a deeper dive on all this from Tom Kane and several colleagues. Tom, who while being perhaps the most passionate voice on the urgency of pandemic learning loss, also suggests we may have the longer-term story of achievement wrong. Here’s Rick Hanushek and several colleagues on gaps, “We find a steady, albeit modest, reduction in the SES-achievement relationship over the past four decades.” Other data indicate the same thing about low-achievers, notable progress during the standards-era toward what we used to call equity.

Time to throw a party? Nope. The data are all as sobering as encouraging. But it does mean the Dante-like abandon all hope approach to talking about educational progress is not only politically stupid whether you’re a reformer, staunch public school supporter, or both, it’s also empirically questionable.

There are also plenty of other examples.

I can remember being lectured by the smart set in education that KIPP would never have more than 15 schools and was consequently more or less a distraction I was naive to even be interested in. (The same people said Teach For America would be perhaps a boutique program of 500 teachers a year if they were really lucky.) By extension most people thought Bill Clinton’s goal of 3,000 charter schools was just throwaway political hyperbole. Today there are more than 7,000 charter schools (and about 275 of them are KIPP schools). Are charters all fantastic, no. But many are and the data shows on average they’re getting better and are a good bet as a policy. And there are inferences you can draw on why that is. If you had told people 25 or even 20 years ago that there would be so many you would have been greeted with a lot of skepticism.

More people are going to college, too. Again, not an unvarnished blessing given the mixed quality and ROI of higher education, but also on average for the good. Especially for low-income students in quality higher education programs.

Standards are also improving. There is plenty to critique about President Obama’s education record but it seems inarguable that in aggregate state standards were better in 2016 than they were in 2008 and he and Arne Duncan played a role in nudging that along. Standards are also more specific and actionable for teachers, and more often aligned with curriculum. We’re also seeing a boom in high quality curriculum hitting the market and the focus on curriculum is a welcome and noteworthy change. In addition to being good for students, curricular support makes the job of teaching more sustainable.

That’s in part because of another good news story, we’re finally getting serious about reading and knowledge rich instruction and curricula. The politically fashionable but largely ineffective approaches are being sidelined, an evidence-based approach to reading is taking hold. Is this arguably a half-century overdue? Yes. But you can bemoan that or appreciate that late is better than never. It’s still progress.

On all these issues you saw a combination of government activity, philanthropy, and social entrepreneurs of different sorts. The private sector also played an important role in some key aspects including innovation. And that activity for a time engaged journalists and policy leaders. It was exciting.

If we’re being honest the biggest barrier to a lot of changes has been and continues to be the constantly changing fads and politics in education. On reading, curriculum, or assessment too many people figure out what is politically fashionable and proceed from there. I’ve had people tell me that phonics is just a Republican way of teaching reading. That’s idiotic. That sort of ethos is why the gap between evidence and practice is often so substantial and preference falsification is rampant.

This is also the same problem we see now with everyone having the mopes about education improvement and reform. Like those tan shoes with white soles it seems like every dude was suddenly wearing, it’s just the fashionable thing.

It’s remarkable how often you hear at an education meeting that little or nothing has improved in schools, or even that things are basically the same as they were during Jim Crow. It’s complete nonsense, of course, most people are smart, well-read enough, and aware of the larger world to know this (at least I sure hope that’s the case). Yet it’s the fashion right now to be in that mode, you get socially and professionally rewarded for it even as it’s creating a culture at odds with high-expectations and optimism for young people.

We’ve also created a culture where saying there has been progress or things aren’t so bad is likened to being blind to the problems. Progress and continuing challenges are not mutually exclusive. This country, and this sector, has made enormous progress *and* there is still a lot of work to do.

But, obviously, to do that work you need people to believe it’s possible. That’s why saying there is no progress, woe is us, and all that is insane as an advocacy strategy. As we’ve discussed, Joe Biden is not going to lead a parade, but he’ll get in front of one. So will most pols. But who wants to lead or be anywhere near the parade of Eeyores? Right now the message to politicians, philanthropy, and media is a dour if not repellent one.

Sure, if you genuinely believe education is not a lever for change or empowerment then you should go work in a different sector or on different issues. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to effect change. Otherwise, let’s stop admiring the problems and get back at it with a lot more energy, new ideas, and some fresh arguments and debates.

Here’s the bottom line: Until the one-two punch of ESSA and the pandemic achievement trends were going in the right direction – especially for students on the wrong end of the achievement gap. And the supports for students, whether new school options or curriculum are improving. There is pent up demand and increasingly supply around innovation.

That’s not a bad time to work in education, it should be an exciting time. Reform has hardly been flawless and hasn’t achieved its loftier goals and at the same time evidence of progress is all around. This sort of fits and starts progress is how social policy change generally happens. In fact, given how stubbornly resistant to change the education system is, how political, and how fad driven, the narrative that nothing has worked is pretty much backwards.

We should say so.

Eclipse Reax:

Monday I wrote about the eclipse. They’re amazing to experience – especially totality. Yet in some cases schools were not embracing that. I got emails with stories of ‘don’t worry we’re closing the blinds’ and ‘out of an abundance of caution we’re keeping everyone inside.’ I heard from someone in Boston saying indoor activities were being canceled so kids could be home safe with their parents. One parent from a school making sure kids would not see the eclipse wrote, “Such a missed opportunity to get kids excited about the universe and its wonders.” Exactly, this is something to be awed by not fearful of. Why are we teaching kids anything different?

But the good news is we have two decades to prepare for the next one here in the U.S. So order those eclipse glasses now.

San Diego:

We’re going to have a lively and fun discussion about AI next week in San Diego, please join us if you can.

Friday, so fish.

Going vintage today with the Friday fish porn. Here’s Ben Sayeski of ESC, a former principal who moved into data visualization with a nice Alaska salmon. Not his first time here.

Check out this unique archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. Send me yours!

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