Fundamentally Flawed

Mike Petrilli is puzzled by NAEP scores:

One of the great mysteries of modern-day school reform is why we’re seeing such strong progress (in math at least, especially among our lowest-performing students) at the elementary and middle school levels, but not in high school.

How is this not completely predictable?

Elementary school education focuses on fundamental skills and knowledge, increasing difficulty each year in a linear fashion. Each year, the students add to their existing base of knowledge. Start with adding and subtracting single digit integers, move to adding and subtracting two and three digit numbers. Eventually move into multiplication, then into division. With division comes the notion of non-integers, and so onto understanding fractions and decimals, then operations with fractions and decimals. Likewise, geometry starts with understanding shapes, then moving onto perimeter and area and then volume. Reading begins with decoding, and imperfectly expands vocabulary, voice complexity (irony, unreliable narrators, etc), while ideally adding content knowledge.

This is why elementary education is always assessed at “grade level”, because the curriculum assigns a particular amount of knowledge and achievement to be demonstrated at each grade. Principals looking to improve outcomes talk obsessively about how many students they can get to “grade level”, or better still, “above grade level”. Even the great content guru E. D. Hirsch talks about “what your Nth grader should know”–but only through 6th grade.

The rate at which students move through the “grade level” varies. Some students can effortlessly score at or above “grade level” without doing a bit of homework and watching 8 hours of TV a day. Other students will rarely achieve grade level without dramatic changes in instruction method and hours in school. Still others will never achieve “grade level”. These students are not distributed proportionately by either race or income, the two categories we monitor progress by because we don’t want to monitor by cognitive ability.

Because the rate of progress varies, and because the knowledge requirements are fundamental, education “reform” can achieve results. Students with poor reading skills can get up to their grade level or even beyond, if they are motivated and taught for longer hours in a few key subjects. But we don’t really know that they are actually achieving academic success or readiness for more demanding material. All we know for sure is they are acquiring that fundamental knowledge of the elementary school curriculum at a faster pace—and of course, in many happy cases, getting a higher level of that fundamental knowledge than they would otherwise acquire.

But then comes high school, where E. D. Hirsch has no advice, where no one talks about grade level, and where the knowledge transferred is anything but fundamental.

The cognitive demands of high school are not a linear step up from 8th grade. In fact, they so far outstrip elementary and middle school expectations that our insistence on ignoring this fact is just downright mindboggling. Kids whose teachers took 9 hours a day, chants, threats, exhortations, or College DAys to keep at or slightly above grade school level reading and math are, sadly, not at all ready to succeed at algebra, trigonometry, Shakespeare, and chemistry.

Of course, many students aren’t even getting to 8th grade level by 8th grade, meaning they are starting the onslaught of high school without even the bare minimum of fundamental knowledge. Given a decent and realistic high school education, some of these students could get those fundamentals by their senior year, but we won’t allow them, instead demanding they spend time in subjects they can’t understand.

“College prep” high school level curriculum, once the option of a few select students with the interest and ability to move to college, is now demanded of all students in the absurd notion that expectations–and, of course, good teachers—are all these students ever needed to achieve. When they don’t achieve despite expectations, who is left to blame but the teachers?

Genuine college prep work is simply beyond the cognitive ability of our lowest ability students. It doesn’t matter if their elementary school teachers got them to grade level on time, or even if they learned more as a “below level proficiency” student in fourth grade.

Why is this so hard to understand? You want to see better performance by our 12th graders? Make the test easier. That’s why the improvement is noticeable in the earlier grades. The 12th grade test doesn’t acknowledge the existence of students who aren’t capable of 8th grade complexity.

No one’s at fault. Our education system didn’t fail. The only problem is that everyone’s not smart enough for high school, much less college prep.

Now, eduformers and progressives both may find this idea offensive or unpleasant. They may just disagree. But to leave it off the list of possibilities entirely bespeaks a certain blindness that, sadly, pervades all levels of our educational policy debate.


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