Education Reform 2003 to 2017: Modest Success/Epic Failure so What’s Next?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Having had some time to reflect upon the 2017 NAEP, let’s take stock of things. In this we should keep in mind our broad ignorance between policy changes and state NAEP trends- and the same goes for average school quality. NAEP gives regular 4th and 8th grade scores in math and reading, and all 50 states have participated since 2003. 8th grade scores are more likely to reflect school quality than 4th grade scores in my opinion, as the students have more years of schooling. I’m not sure what to make of positive 4th grade score trends that do not result in higher 8th grade scores for instance. So this in essence a window into what we have to show for American K-12 reform 2003 to 2017 in 8th grade math and reading by state:

So what to make of the above chart? The below chart eliminates a lot of clutter by only including the states with statistically significant gains in both math and reading 2003-2017:


So 19 out of 50 states demonstrate statistically significant gains in both 8th grade math and reading. Notice also the absence in the second chart of mega-states Illinois, New York and Texas (although it is good to see California and Florida making it in). Texas has as many K-12 students as the 20 smallest states combined and annually adds approximately a Wyoming public school system sized number of new students. Florida has half as many students as Texas and California is still larger than Texas.

Since we don’t know the relationship between policy and academic trends, we are limited in the conclusions we can draw with confidence. Having said that, policies that have been broadly applied across all 50 states apparently suffer from severe limitations in their ability to move the needle academically. All 50 states for instance have adopted state academic standards and accountability exams, but most states have failed to move the needle on 8th grade scores. Even if we were feeling incredibly generous and made the wild assumption that none of the second chart gains would have happened in the absence of testing, a failure rate of 62% after 14 years is a far cry from leaving no child behind.

Mike Petrilli and Peter Cunningham recently offered up “where do we go from here” think pieces. I think Mike has some interesting ideas, but Peter’s call for a vast increase in spending is broadly unrealistic imo given the nation’s trillions of dollars in unfunded pension and entitlement liabilities, 10k Baby Boomers per day reaching the age of 65, etc. In normal times, Mike’s incremental adjustments might make a lot of sense, but we don’t live in either normal times, or in times that are going to allow some Great Society on Steroids increase in K-12 spending.

A much more difficult scenario may loom whereby the district system continues to resist reform, reformers continue to push reforms the public does not care for, and severe funding needs for increased health care spending leads to a broad reduction in per pupil spending.  State constitutions guarantee K-12 funding, but whether or not they will be creating schools that the vast majority of parents will continue to entrust with their children, I don’t feel as confident about. There are hopeful signs in the NAEP from state charter sectors:

…but the rate of charter growth has slowed substantially nationwide. Of particular disappointment are the last several state charter laws to pass that produce very few charter schools. Even states with relatively fast growing sectors have large wait lists. There are alas limits to what we can realistically hope for from a charter movement that has to a large degree lost its way by prioritizing cartel behavior over the interests of children on wait lists imo.

The private choice movement enjoyed a strong run earlier in the decade, but has since ran into political headwinds. Many private choice programs exist, but most remain modest in scale. The case for private choice remains as strong as ever, and the need will continue to grow, but the looming state funding crisis is coming fast. In four years, half of the Baby Boom generation will have reached the age of 65, and by 2030 all of them will be there. They have called dibs in advance on all plausible funding increases and a whole lot more.

So what is next? An increasingly likely scenario in my mind is that state district systems retain their flaws but loses a significant part of their funding and that choice systems continue to fail to meet existing much less expanded demand. In such a scenario an increasing percentage of families may decide to fend for themselves. Call them home-schools, home-school co-ops or micro-schools, my spidey-sense tells me that we should expect to see a great many more of them in the years ahead. I’ll write more about this in a follow-up post.

7 Responses to Education Reform 2003 to 2017: Modest Success/Epic Failure so What’s Next?

  1. Dr Ladner, is it correct that in a number of posts, you’ve expressed skepticism about the value of test scores to describe the quality of a school? Is it also correct that you’ve pointed out that many families are looking for things other than test scores when they select a school for their kids?

    Assuming the answer to both of those questions is ‘yes”, I believe that describing the last 15 years as “Epic Failure” based on NAEP tests is unwise. I think that a number of important things are not measured by such tests, such as: 1) Are students learning the importance and value of being actively involved in voting and other opportunities/responsibilities of being a citizen? 2) Are youngsters developing their individual skills/talents/ abilities, 3) Are young people entering some form of post-secondary education ready to do college level work? 4) What percentage of high school students are earning college credit prior to graduation from high school? These are only a few of the questions I’ve urged policy-makers and families to ask in judging the quality of schools.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Yes and yes, so yes. I will however point out that NAEP is not subject to the same sort of falsification that we see in things like state tests, high school graduation rates, etc. because it is only given to a sample of students, no school’s ratings or teacher evaluations are a stake, and the items are very closely guarded. So schools lack both the incentive and the ability to game NAEP in the way we have seen with state tests.

    Ergo, fourteen years into a reform effort that set the rhetorical bar at “leaving no child behind” finds only a minority of states having moving the needle on 8th grade reading and math. If you look at the second chart, it is arguable whether some of those statistically significant gains are actually meaningful.

    Having said all of that, I agree that we should broaden our menu on measures. I’m especially keen on user reviews.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Private choice doesn’t require funding increases; on the contrary, it saves money so you can spend more elsewhere.

    So budget crunches increase rather than decrease the prospects for private choice.

    • matthewladner says:

      They should, but often state lawmakers in budget crunches assume the fetal positions under their desks rather than engaging in rational decision making. I have a bad feeling that the crunch will increase the demand for choice.

  4. Mike G says:

    Good post. Hmm.

    1. District schools impervious to change (besides the margins). Excellent bet.

    2. Charter and other public choice programs slow. Solid bet. But some hopeful scenarios where things tick up.

    3% growth gets us to ~4 million kids in 10 years; 5% is ~5 million; 7% is ~6 million.

    3. K-12 spending declines. Plausible bet. But in next 10 years? I’d bet it continues to rise on similar trajectory.

    One thought: K-12 funding streams (local/state) are partly disconnected from boomer needs (which is more about federal SS/Medicare). The latter is really a question about how much national debt before things blow up.

    So I’d say that Cato Institute graph, with rising spending and flat NAEP, is what I’d guess for next 10 years….

    My question to you Dr. L: will charter academic results improve, decline, hold steady in next 10 years?

    • matthewladner says:

      Yes SS/Medicare have big problems, but it is also the case that people aged 65+ draw heavily upon Medicaid, and that program is jointly financed by states and the feds. I’m not sure how this will play out, but states desperately need large productivity increases in public K-12 and health care spending. On the charter question, the last couple of NAEPs have looked generally positive, and I’m guessing that a maturation effect has a good deal to do with that. As fewer states have sectors dominated by brand new schools full of kids who just transferred in, I’m thinking the results will improve.

  5. Tunya Audain says:

    Really looking forward to Matthew’s follow-up post on promising alternatives to current education or schooling structures. Certainly home-schools, home-school co-ops and micro-schools are of interest. Even now I’m hearing of home-based education movement people gearing-up for greater assistance to the European population.

    And, it’s not just economics that’s a driving force for alternatives. Consider parent concerns about:

    – safety issues
    – bullying concerns
    – academic slippage
    – indoctrination
    – culture wars played out in school curricula
    – marginalized populations not achieving well (poor, ethnic, immigrant . . . )
    – special needs not readily accommodated
    – philosophical, religious, ideological values
    – etc.

    It’s not just parents who are eager. Ask a teacher and a good number will state candidly that they would love to start their own school, or with others, to practice more evidence-informed practices instead of having to jump to the latest experimental fad.

    What about the growth of tutoring? This is a form of private education. A form of “dame schools” of olden days.

    I would like to see more education choices where actual credentials were upfront as to what is offered and achieved. In effect — hanging up one’s shingle (look it up). Imagine: Parents could choose fuzzy math or some other math program instead of taking chances in classrooms of today.

    Even the “choices” movement is becoming infected by the global “transformational” gurus milking the education dollar!

    What are the prospects for real choices in education?

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