Nobody Likes Good News About Education

Blindfolded Typing CompetitionAfter Politifact rated as “mostly false” Diane Ravitch’s claim about rising student achievement until NCLB, Andy Rotherham reluctantly came to her quasi-defense:

Of all the false claims she’s lobbed out over the past few years, I’m not sure why they chose to go after her on that one where she’s more or less right.  She overstates the case and the specifics but is correct on the larger point. The data on test scores and indicators like graduation rates are generally more complicated than the political debate allows and there has been progress and it’s too often not acknowledged (and cherry picking of NAEP data is a pandemic in the ed world to make various points)…

More generally, part of the confusion about school performance stems from the intellectual inconsistency of at once trying to say the last twenty years of reform were wasted while also saying schools are making progress.

Indeed. I’ve been saying something similar for years. The fact is that educational outcomes in the United States have risen substantially over the last four decades, including large gains in both achievement and attainment.

This simple reality is easily overlooked because there have been major demographic shifts in the K-12 student population over the same time period that mask big gains for the major subgroups.

As Rotherham says, it’s especially easy to overlook this good news when it’s inconvenient to the narrative you’re trying to advance. Admitting that improvements in educational outcomes  over the last decade have been sustained gets suspiciously close to admitting that education policy over the last decade hasn’t been a horrible disaster.

But it’s important to note that this sort of motivated blindness isn’t limited to critics of reform. Consider this Halloween-themed survey from the uber-reformy StudentsFirst, which tries to spook you with the claim that “U.S. student achievement has stayed relatively flat for more than 3 decades.”

Longtime readers will know that that claim is plainly false, and will understand why: It appears to be true only if you don’t know the importance of disaggregating your achievement results to evaluate outcomes for subgroups of students.

Presumably StudentsFirst – like Diane Ravitch – has the capacity to do that sort of relatively straight-forward data analysis. (In fact, the NAEP website makes it so easy to do that I’ve previously managed to do it in my pajamas.) So why didn’t they do it?

StudentsFirst’s dilemma is the reverse of Ravitch’s. If StudentsFirst admits that educational outcomes  are at all-time highs, then their desired reforms may start to seem a bit less urgently necessary, and StudentsFirst banks heavily on a sense of urgency.

So is StudentsFirst deliberately misleading people about the state of American education here? I don’t think so.

For one thing, I have no personal experience with anyone StudentsFirst-related operating in anything but good faith, and I prefer not to assume bad faith if it isn’t necessary.

Rather, this strikes me as a case of carelessness, motivated by the fact that the careless conclusion is superficially convenient for the narrative they’re trying to advance (viz., that American education, and thus America , is in a state of crisis.)

The strongest evidence of carelessness is this: it wouldn’t look good for the last 15-20 years of education reform if “U.S. student achievement has stayed relatively flat for more than 3 decades”.

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  1. john
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:08 PM | Permalink

    So it is inconvenient for reformers and reform critics to contend that education in the era of reform either is or is not in crisis? And also convenient.

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