The Economist reports on some heartening news for the White House:
The National Assessment of Educational Progress has been periodically testing a representative sample of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds since the early 1970s. This year’s report contained two striking results. The first is that America’s nine-year-olds posted their best scores in reading and maths since the tests were introduced (in 1971 in reading and 1973 in maths). The second is that the gap between white students and minorities is narrowing. The nine-year-olds who made the biggest gains of all were blacks, traditionally the most educationally deprived group in American society.
The improved results in America’s National Assessment of Educational Progress have been linked by some to Mr Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and increased funding for the Department of Education.
The education establishment—particularly the two big teachers’ unions—were quick to pooh-pooh the result. The critics argued that Mr Bush cannot take credit for the gains because his chief educational reform, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, had been in place for only a year when the tests were administered. They also pointed out that the gains are not universal. The results are mixed for 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. The reading skills of black and Latino 17-year-olds were nearly identical to those of white 13-year-olds.
All this is true, but self-confounding. Mr Bush’s act may be very new. But the ideas that lie behind it—focusing on basic subjects such as maths and reading and using regular testing to hold schools accountable—have been widely tried at the state level since at least the mid-1990s. Mr Bush deserves credit for recognising winning ideas thrown up by America’s “laboratories of democracy” and then applying them at the federal level. Thirteen- and 17-year-olds may not have shown as much improvement as nine-year-olds. But that is precisely because reformers have focused their energies on the earlier grades.
Well, of course the education establishment is protesting. These results suggest that the Bush approach is feasible after all, and this would mean that their opposition to results-based testing is going to hold less and less water with parents. Sure, there are good arguments for not focusing only on teaching to the test. After all, Confucian civilization has emphasized test scores for almost two thousand years, and the resulting rigidity and lack of imagination has mean, in the modern era, a less vibrant cultural life. Japan, the current standard bearer of the traditional East Asian approach to education, has only begun to be a exporter of culture (rather than an importer) in the last couple of decades, accelerated just over a decade ago with the beginning of Japan’s period of economic stagnation. Taiwan’s recent bursts of cultural experimentation have also accompanied sputtering in the economic engine. Nonetheless, Americans will probably find some sort of balance.
What is most worrying to the public school teachers’ unions, of course, is that this implies what The Economist refers to as “inconvenient reforms”. That, of course, is at the heart of the issue. These unions, make no mistake, are more interested in their own existence, than in the welfare of their constituent members.
Lastly, in response to the charge that the results are less ambiguously positive for the older age groups, there is not only the point made by The Economist, that “refirners have focused their energies on the earlier grades”, but that this is the wise thing to do. First, 13- and 17-year-olds are at a later stage in life, when they are less likely to absorb new things at school (a slowdown in the pace of intellectual absorption combined with an adolescent resentment of authority figures such as teachers). Second, by focusing their energies on the 9-year-olds, reformers are paving the way for better 13- and 17-year-olds four and eight years later.
Why would improvements among 9-year-olds imply delayed improvements for 13- and 17-year-olds? Well, if you’re a bright, 9-year-old black youngster, the fact that you’ve done better than expected might encourage you to have more self-confidence, and disregard the tired old stereotypes, some reinforced by older blacks, that will hold you back. And when you’re 13, or 17, you’ll still retain that self-confidence, knowing that you can beat the historical trend. With so many things working in your favor, and at the same time not working against others, what you end up with, a year from the test, is a confident group of 10-year-olds. In two years, a confident group of 11-year-olds. And so on and so forth.
This former of Governor of Texas is not so stupid as some like to make him out to be, after all. But some of us had always known. Permit me a slightly smug smile here.
[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]