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Reports of the Death of Education Reform Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Nor is it true that schools have done all they can to boost students' intelligence--but maybe it's better not to tell anyone.
Once again, commentators are declaring education reform to be dead. But across the country, under-the-radar change is happening that could well accomplish the goals reformers have given up on.
In a series of recent blog posts, Matt Ygelsias has analyzed what he calls “the strange death of education reform”—perhaps a tad belatedly, since this is a “death” that’s apparently been going on for years. (History buffs may recognize Yglesias’s title as an homage to George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935.)
Not so long ago, Yglesias observes, politicians in both the Democratic and Republican camps talked up education reform as the key to making society more equitable and closing the discrepancy in test scores that is sometimes called “the achievement gap.” These days, he points out, many on the left reject that very term as racist; some argue that any test that turns up racial disparities must itself be racist.
Education activists on the right, meanwhile, have moved on to fighting culture wars and expanding the definition of school choice to include private schools and homeschooling—aspects of education that are unlikely to help the poor on a large scale.
Ygelsias’s diagnosis is that reformers overpromised. While he notes that the test-score gap—whatever you call it—is still very much with us, his prescriptions for what to do about it are modest: encourage charter schools that seem to be working (mostly those in urban areas), close the ones that aren’t, and temper our expectations about what education reform can accomplish.
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That conclusion has been echoed by another commentator, the iconoclastic Marxist Freddie deBoer. DeBoer starts from the proposition that intelligence is unequally distributed in the population. That’s an unassailable fact. He goes from there, however, to argue that our expectations for education have been unrealistically high.
“Even the most optimistic reading of the research literature suggests that almost nothing moves the needle in academic outcomes,” he writes in a post he says was rejected by the education journalism newsletter The Grade for being “too hot” to publish. (The editor of the newsletter had no comment on that assertion.) Teachers, deBoer argues, have been under pressure to adhere to “an educational ideology that insists that every student is a budding genius whose potential waits to be unlocked by a dedicated teacher.”
When it comes to what to do, deBoer doesn’t endorse even Yglesias’s weak prescription of modified school choice. As far as he’s concerned, we should forget about education as a means of reducing inequality and just focus on redistributive social programs.
It’s not just Yglesias and deBoer who have given up on reforming education. Their writing is reflective of what seems like a collective shrug, judging from other commentators and media coverage of education—or the lack thereof: Oh well, we tried that, and it didn’t work.
What’s Really Going On Out There?
DeBoer says that since he published a book several years ago making his argument about the limits of schooling, he’s heard from “dozens and dozens of teachers, thanking me for putting their thoughts to print.”
Funny thing: I too published a book several years ago, essentially making the opposite argument—i.e., that there’s a lot more schools could do to unlock the potential of all students, including those whose achievement is low. And I too have heard from “dozens and dozens of teachers” who have thanked me, sometimes telling me I’ve changed their lives.
Another funny thing: Despite the obituaries by Yglesias and others, education reform may be very much alive. It depends on how you define “reform.” Are politicians bemoaning low test scores and insisting that schools and teachers be held accountable for them? Nope. But are fundamental changes happening across the country that could result in millions more students being able to read, write, and learn more effectively?
If you just looked at media coverage, you might say no. But if, like me, you spend a lot of your time traveling around the country to speak about how schools can change and encountering enthusiastic audiences of educators who are ripe for it—and often in the throes of it—then you might say yes. And you might even call that reform.
Yglesias and deBoer aren’t totally wrong. The education reform movement did overpromise, and teachers have often been held to impossible standards. But that doesn’t mean we should just declare defeat. Maybe reformers overlooked something fundamental that was blocking progress—and in trying to reform the system, they inadvertently made it even worse.
Can Education Increase Intelligence?
Before I get to what that fundamental thing is, let’s take a moment to examine deBoer’s premise that there’s not much schools can do to alter an individual’s intelligence because it’s largely determined by genes.
There is, of course, a genetic component to intelligence, estimated at 50 to 80%. But there’s also evidence that schooling can boost it. For example, consider a phenomenon in cognitive science called the Flynn Effect, which refers to the fact that IQ scores increased over most of the 20th century. One likely factor was the spread of education. (Recently, the trend has started to reverse, for reasons that are unclear.)
If that’s not enough evidence for you, consider a meta-analysis of studies entitled “How Much Does Education Improve Intelligence?” The answer: about one to five IQ points for each additional year of education. “Education appears to be the most consistent, robust, and durable method yet to be identified for raising intelligence,” the researchers concluded. (Of course, if—like some on the left—you consider IQ tests inherently racist, along with standardized tests in general, you may not find this argument convincing.)
Although deBoer is at pains to say he’s not claiming that differences in intelligence are race-based—or, presumably, income-based—his argument inevitably leads to the same result as those that have assumed that non-white and/or poor kids are intellectually inferior. Over 50 years ago, the Coleman Report—a massive federally financed study—came to the conclusion that family and environment were far more important in academic achievement than anything schools could do. That report formed part of the basis for a 1973 Supreme Court decision saying that local governments were under no constitutional obligation to equalize school funding—because really, what did it matter?
More recently, scholars have pointed out that James Coleman, author of the eponymous report, used faulty methods that couldn’t support his conclusion. DeBoer’s method is faulty in a different way: he’s looked at measures that reformers have tried, seen that they haven’t worked, and concluded—ergo—that nothing will work.
Reformers have focused on things like school choice, teacher quality, and test-based accountability. But if you’re not actually teaching kids much of anything, all of that amounts to the proverbial rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.
What, you may be thinking? Not teaching kids much of anything? How can that be? That’s what I used to think, too. And certainly, schools at the secondary level are at least trying to teach substance. The problem is that many students are ill-equipped to learn that substance because elementary schools haven’t seen it as their responsibility to equip them with the knowledge assumed by the curriculum at higher grade levels. That is the fundamental thing that reformers have overlooked.
I’ve gone into the reasons for that problem in detail elsewhere, so I’ll just say here that one problem is that we haven’t been using effective methods to teach kids to decipher written words. An equally serious problem is reading comprehension instruction, which has taken over much of the elementary school day.. That instruction focuses on a set of supposed skills, like “finding the main idea” of a text. On the theory that kids can use those skills to acquire whatever knowledge they need later on, schools have marginalized subjects like social studies and science, especially where reading test scores are low.
Unfortunately, that’s not how reading comprehension works, according to scientific evidence—and really, common sense. Comprehension depends far more on having relevant background knowledge, including the academic vocabulary children acquire from social studies and science. That’s the kind of knowledge assumed by, for example, the textbooks they’ll be expected to read in high school and college.
Some kids—generally those with more highly educated parents—are able to pick up that knowledge outside school. As a result, they tend to do better in school and on standardized tests. In our society, those kids are more likely to be white and affluent. Hence the “achievement gap.”
The solution is, or should be, obvious: give all children, including those from less educated families, access to the kind of knowledge that enables reading comprehension, beginning in kindergarten. There are now half a dozen different elementary curricula that do that in a coherent way, focusing on rich content and guiding students to think about it analytically, while simultaneously building foundational reading skills (think “phonics”) in the early grades. More and more schools are beginning to implement one of these curricula.
How many? Hard to say, because we don’t have good data. But judging from the number of speaking requests I get and the anecdotal evidence I hear from educators, there are quite a few, with more coming on board every year.
Maybe It’s Better for This “Reform” to Fly Under the Radar?
There’s been some media attention to the more widespread changes happening on the “phonics” side, but very little focused on what’s happening in the equally crucial area of building kids’ knowledge. And frankly, I’m of two minds about whether that’s good or bad.
On the one hand, the imbalance in media coverage is giving educators and policymakers the mistaken impression that the only thing about literacy instruction that needs fixing is “phonics”—i.e., that we just need “more” of it. That can lead to a kind of reform that contains the seeds of its own undoing. If kids reach upper grade levels and can decipher complex text but are unable to understand it, educators may conclude—as some have before—that phonics just “doesn’t work” and abandon it. Phonics does work; it’s just not enough.
On the other hand, I don’t know how helpful it would be to have politicians calling for content-rich elementary curriculum and having the media shower attention on that. It’s a complex area, and there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. Even with these changes flying largely under the radar, that’s already been happening,.
There shouldn’t be anything political about education—we should just figure out what works for kids and do it—but it sounds naïve even to say that these days. Whenever you get specific about content. and make the specifics public, you can be pretty sure that someone out there will find cause for complaint. And yet, there’s no way to provide a quality education without getting specific about content.
The content-rich curricula that are currently available have drawn attacks from the left and the right, with both sides sometimes bashing the same curriculum. One of them, Core Knowledge Language Arts, is routinely criticized by the left for being Eurocentric, but an educator in Nebraska just emailed me to say that a local school board there is concerned that it “teaches [critical race theory], has sexual content and there is just too much negative out there for the board to be ok with.”
I feel confident that the vast majority of parents and teachers would see nothing wrong with the content in any of these six curricula. In fact, I suspect they would be delighted with how much children are learning and how much they’re enjoying the experience. I say that because that’s what I’ve heard, over and over, from those who have actually tried the curricula and implemented them well.
So part of me feels that the message about the need to build kids’ knowledge should be shouted from the rooftops, especially in light of recent evidence showing it can have dramatic effects—including eliminating the achievement gap. And part of me wonders whether a quieter revolution is more likely to succeed, as long as it doesn’t lose momentum.
But there are two things I’m pretty sure of: First, the death of education reform has been greatly exaggerated. And second, there’s a lot more that schools can do to unlock students’ potential. Maybe education can’t turn every student into a genius, but, when done in a way that lines up with scientific evidence, it can enable all students to show us what they’re truly capable of achieving.