It’s working

Several high-profile reports over the last few days give rise to a seldom-heard statement in the education community: Something’s working.

The preferred narrative today — especially in state legislatures — is that public education is hopelessly broken, and the only recourse is to provide parents with escape routes through vouchers or private school tax credits, which Georgia has done. Many members of the Georgia General Assembly have been on a public education death watch for years.

Another common theme is that raising the performance of low-income children is a near-impossible goal, that the burdens of poverty are too onerous and beyond the reach of any reform efforts.

A new federal update on the long-term performance of American students contradicts both those narratives.

Assessing U.S. students on a set of benchmarks that have essentially remained unchanged for 40 years, the “Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012” found that elementary and middle school students are performing at higher levels today than previous generations.

The performance trends counter the assumption that American schools are worsening. The improvements occurred despite dramatic shifts in the American student population in the last four decades.

In 1978, 80 percent of students were whites, who historically score higher on standardized tests, and 6 percent were Hispanics, who historically score lower.

Today, whites represent only 56 of the nation’s school enrollment, while Hispanics make up 21 percent. The proportion of black students has remained stable at 13 percent of the student population in 1978 and 15 percent today.

“The good news, given where they started, is that black and Latino children have racked up some of the biggest gains of all. And these, by the way, aren’t just minor, statistically significant but meaningless gains,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, who participated in the release of the long-term data Thursday.

“In mathematics, African-American and Latino 9-year-olds are performing about where their 13-year-old counterparts were in the early ’70s. Moreover, while it might have seemed impossible 25 years ago for black and Latino 9- and 13-year-olds to reach the proficiency levels that white students then held, they have indeed reached those levels in math,” she said.

The lesson, said Haycock, is “improvement and gap-closing is not just a theoretical possibility; it is happening. These results put to rest any notion that our schools are getting worse. In fact, they are getting better for every group of children.”

Closer to home, this year’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores showed a one-year improvement in the percentage of Georgia students meeting or exceeding standards on 18 of the 30 content-area CRCTs. The number of students earning the “exceeds performance” rating increased in 24 of the 30 content areas.

“Our results this year on the CRCT show consistent progress, and we continue to see many students scoring in the ‘exceeds’ category,” said state school Superintendent John Barge. “This is a testament to the great work our teachers are doing to take students to higher levels of learning.”

Also in the news: A follow-up to a 2008 landmark study of charter school performance found that while charters still lag traditional public schools in overall academic performance, they benefit poor minority students. (The study authors commended Georgia for closing under-performing charters, but said the state saw little boost to its overall charter performance because it’s approving too many weak new schools.)

The study, by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, said that while black students who are not poor get no advantage from a charter school education, low-income black students benefit, earning the equivalent of 29 days additional learning days in reading and 36 in math, said center director Margaret Raymond in a telephone conference call.

“Our study does not get under the hood diagnosing what drives the performance results that we observe,” said Raymond. “We think the autonomy of charters gives them a much easier ability to control the allocation of their resources (and) choose their school models and their instructional model.”

The challenge for all schools and states is to accelerate the progress of low-income and minority students, who despite these improvements, still trail the performance of white peers.

“We have to pick up the pace,” said Haycock. “We have to mine every bit of data we have in an effort to learn from where progress has been the greatest, to get insights from fastest gainers.”

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