Then Nothing Has Worked in Education

A common refrain from critics of American public education is that we continue to spend more money on it while getting the same disappointing results. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board, in an article titled, “America’s Schools Flunk,” wrote,

“The results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered to students around the country every two years, were published on Wednesday. There isn’t much to cheer. Only 35% of fourth graders rated proficient in reading, which is about the same as in 2009. Worse, students have backslid in reading over the last two years.”

The Cato Institute published this handy graph showing how profligate our spending has been relative to our students’ performance:

Legislators have used the data to argue that we should spend far less, since spending more hasn’t worked. In a 2015 Facebook post, Representative Dave Brat wrote,

“Our own government statistics show that over 30 years, federal spending on education has grown by 375%, but test scores have remained flat. That proves that just throwing more money at education is not the solution.”

Politifact examined Brat’s statement and found it mostly true, although he plays fast and loose with the numbers since spending was at an all-time high in 2010 because of the one-time injection of stimulus money (Cato used the same trick).

Still, there’s no denying that performance on the “nation’s report card” for 17-year-olds has been stagnant while spending has climbed.

There are, of course, a number of problems with using the NAEP as the sole measure of how well American kids learn, and those problems have been outlined by better writers than me. Also, a fair amount of research has emerged that shows more spending does in fact lead to more learning, especially for low-income students:

Still, the critics aren’t wrong when they say that more spending hasn’t led to improved performance on the NAEP.

It’s just not as damning of an argument as they think it is.

Because reformers’ criticism that students aren’t learning more despite increased spending betrays a rather gaping hole in their logic to which they seem inexplicably blind:

If the only way we’re measuring education outcomes is by standardized test scores like the NAEP, then nothing has worked in education.

That includes all of their ideas, which have dominated education policy for the last 20 years. 

Teachers have their own ideas about what would improve education. Most teachers I know believe that treating teachers like professionals, making sure classrooms are staffed with certified educators, and trusting educators to make policy decisions rather than uninformed legislators and think tank boobs would improve outcomes. Teachers think that we should address poverty through social policy instead of expecting education to solve it. We believe that more recess time, fewer tests, increased teacher autonomy, and yes, more spending for the neediest students, more mental health professionals in schools, and more investment in our public education system would lead to better test scores and life outcomes.

Also, we’d like fewer school shootings.

But most of those ideas haven’t been tried. They have, like most teachers’ ideas, been ignored if not ridiculed as excuse-making.

Instead, the reformers have had their way for about two decades, starting with the punitive No Child Left Behind Act, continuing with the federal bribery scheme Race to the Top, and persisting today with the legacy of accountability measures and the attack on public schools waged daily by our Secretary of Education.

The same people who want to spend less on education invariably favor an unoriginal list of reforms, most of which have been attempted.

The National Review is as good a representative as any, and in 2013 they believed that “Liquidating the teachers’ unions, enacting vouchers and other school-choice options, abandoning the exhausted excuses for poor performance, and — conversely — boosting expectations for all students (regardless of background or circumstances) would help solve this perennial challenge.”

They largely got their way.

27 states are now right-to-work and the Supreme Court handed the reformers a victory in Janus v. AFSCME. Membership in teachers’ unions has dropped, albeit modestly, a disappointing result for reformers who’ve won multiple legislative victories but who likely have no one to blame but themselves for motivating teachers to remain with their unions so they might more effectively fight against policies designed to destroy their power.

School choice has expanded over the last 20 years, as have voucher schemes.

As for “abandoning exhausted excuses for poor performance,” that’s the heart of the entire reform movement. We’ve ignored the root causes of poor performance and achievement gaps and instead placed all responsibility on the shoulders of our educators, threatening them with their jobs if scores don’t improve enough and using silly statistical models to rate them based on their students’ (or sometimes other teachers’ students) standardized test results.

If flatlining test scores are evidence that increased spending on education hasn’t worked, then those same test scores are evidence that reformers’ ideas are equally ineffective.

If more spending hasn’t worked, then more parent choice hasn’t worked.

If more spending hasn’t worked, then neither has weakening teachers’ job protections.

If more spending hasn’t led to higher test scores, then neither have common standards.

If more money hasn’t worked then:

Higher expectations for schools haven’t worked.

Shaming and punishing schools and teachers for student test scores hasn’t worked.

New teacher evaluation systems haven’t worked (as the Gates Foundation already admitted).

Longer school years haven’t worked.

More instructional time hasn’t worked.

An intense focus on tested subjects to the diminishment of the arts and electives hasn’t worked.

Personalized learning hasn’t worked.

More technology in classrooms hasn’t worked.

Filling teaching positions with long term substitutes and uncertified teachers hasn’t worked.

If critics are going to point to stagnating test scores as evidence that more spending on education is foolish, then they must admit that their own ideas, most of which have been given a chance to work, have been equally disappointing. Flat test scores might indicate that increased spending doesn’t lead to better results. But if they do, then they also indicate that everything else we’ve tried in education has been equally fruitless. Critics who point to test scores as a reason to spend less money should also see those test scores as a reason to abandon their most cherished reform ideas.

I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.

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