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Two Education Crises: Which is Fake, Which Real?

Last week there were two important studies released. One tells us that the international test data used to declare our schools broken and uncompetitive is bogus. The other tells us we have a very different crisis we should be concerned about: the percent of students who are engaged and excited about school drops dramatically between elementary and high school. The policies being pursued to fight the first, phony crisis are likely to be making our real problem of declining student engagement worse.

When "no excuses" reformers like Michelle Rhee or Bill Gates want to justify their demands for policy shifts in our schools, the first card they play is the one that says our schools are failing in comparison to those of our international rivals. Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst ran TV ads last summer that depicted our students as an out of shape athlete bumbling around on a gym mat. Bill Gates on Oprah a few years ago asserted that if we could get rid of all the nation's "bad teachers," our scores would rise to the top of the world rankings.

But researchers have long been skeptical about these rankings, and careful investigation by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein have confirmed that our standings are quite respectable. Our international standings are depressed not by "bad teachers," but by the relatively high number of students we have living in poverty.

They explain:

Disaggregation of PISA test scores by social class group reveals some patterns that many education policymakers will find surprising. Average U.S. test scores are lower than average scores in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, in part because the share of disadvantaged students in the overall national population is greater in the United States than in comparison countries. If the social class distribution of the United States were similar to that of top-scoring countries, the average test score gap between the United States and these top-scoring countries would be cut in half in reading and by one-third in mathematics. Disadvantaged U.S. students perform comparatively better than do disadvantaged students in important comparison countries. The test score gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in the United States is smaller than the gap in similar post-industrial countries...

The authors include this in their conclusion:

We have shown that U.S. student performance, in real terms and relative to other countries, improves considerably when we estimate average U.S. scores after adjusting for U.S. social class composition and for a lack of care in sampling disadvantaged students in particular. With these adjustments, U.S. scores would rank higher among OECD countries than commonly reported in reading--fourth best instead of 14th--and in mathematics--10th best instead of 25th.

So perhaps we are not international laggards after all.
But we are aware that test scores are not the thing that really matters in the long run. In the long run, what we ought to care about most is how well prepared our students are to be happy, productive adults. And higher test scores could actually mean we are doing worse in that regard. The recent Gallup poll results on student engagement draw our attention to another set of indicators, and by these, we are in real trouble.

From this report by Brandon Busteed at Gallup:

The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. We found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged.

Mr. Busteed provides a strong dose of reality to our test-obsessed system:

The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure. There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening -- ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students -- not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.

A few months ago I visited a high school in Albuquerque that has figured out how to reverse this dynamic. In targeting students who had already dropped out or were disengaged from school, ACE Leadership High had to confront this crisis head-on. They did so in ways that echo Mr. Busteed's insights, through projects with strong connections to the real world these students see around them.

Let's be clear about why so many students have disconnected from high school. As the pressure to perform well on tests is exerted ever more on everyone in our schools, we have shifted the very reason for our work. When students ask "why are we learning this?" our best answers revolve around the students themselves. We ought to be teaching things that are really useful in their lives, and which satisfy their curiosity about the world. It is our job as teachers to provoke that curiosity, and build on it. It is our job to make connections to the real world visible and compelling. When our answer to the question "why are we learning this?" is "because it is on the test," or "because it is Common Core standard 3.6a," we have lost our way, and our students know it.

It is time to abandon the phony imperatives of test-driven reform, and listen to what our students are telling us.

What do you think? Is our obsession with test scores killing student engagement?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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