The Nation is Still at Risk – and the Public is Still in the Dark
By J.E. Stone
Thirty years ago, the Nation at Risk report declared that the nation was threatened by a “rising tide of mediocrity” in education. Today, it’s a tsunami and the underlying reason is the same. Children are still not learning to read and everyone thinks the problem is in someone else’s school or district.
The recent teacher cheating scandal in Atlanta illustrates the problem. How could a scam this massive take place right under the nose of parents, concerned citizens, and the school board and not be noticed for 10 years?
The answer is simple: Most people, including most school board members are blind to the problems in their local schools. When asked, they say that education in general has problems but their school(s) is the happy exception. Why this rosy view? Because almost all of what they know about their local schools comes from the schools themselves.
School districts routinely feed school boards and the public carefully scrubbed reports in which successes are hyped, failures rationalized, and statistics reported with skimpy context. Despite the districts’ obvious incentive to maintain a positive image, most board members and other interested parties habitually accept excuses and reassurances that they would never swallow if they came from another agency or business.
It’s a problem. The only way to actually improve educational outcomes is to have accurate reports and hold schools accountable. And to do that, boards and the public need independent sources of information about student achievement, budgets, program effectiveness, and the like. If a scandal involving thousands could be concealed for 10 years, would it be surprising to find that most school boards have no information as to whether their students are mastering reading or math beyond what their school district tells them?
It's no secret that too many students aren’t learning. Today, only about 30 percent of children can read at grade-level by the third grade. For low-income students, an astounding 83 percent of students fail to meet this mark. And half of the U.S. workforce – about 80 million adults – currently lacks the educational skills necessary to earn a family-sustaining wage. The future is in jeopardy but local schools continue to tell us that all is well or on the upturn.
To get a sense of the reality gap, consider the differences between the scores reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national “gold standard,” and those reported by the states.
For instance, the Texas Education Agency claims 89 percent of its 4th-grade students are proficient in math. According to the NAEP, only 39 percent are actually proficient.
Texas isn't unique. Scores are just as inflated in states like Georgia—and that is in addition to distortions caused by Atlanta’s cheating. The state says over 80 percent are proficient in math but the NAEP says that 40 percent is closer to reality.
But wait, there’s more! Much more. The Maryland Department of Education claims 90 percent of its students are proficient in 4th-grade math. NAEP says it's actually closer to 50 percent. California's Education Department says six in ten 8th graders are proficient in science. NAEP's assessment? Just barely above 20 percent. Most states follow this pattern.
In a global economy, the U.S. will inevitably sink unless parents, school boards, and educators are able to confront the facts, warts and all. Some states – such as Florida, Tennessee and Massachusetts – have tried to close these reporting gaps, but resistance is huge. Educators fear exposure.
Fortunately, there are unvarnished data out there. Parents don't have to wait for distant bureaucrats to tinker their way to trustworthy school reports. Right now, they can find detailed report cards at websites like greatschools.org and schooldigger.com. My organization, the Education Consumers Foundation, displays school-by-school data online in easy-to-understand graphics for virtually all states.
These are just a few of the resources available to parents, boards, and community leaders who want to look beyond inflated self reports and into the facts that can lead to real school improvement.
J.E. Stone is President and CEO of Education Consumers Foundation. For data on your school, head to www.education-consumers.org/rad.htm.