I always enjoy Mike Petrilli’s arguments. In Our Schools Secret Success, he says that real progress was made during the last two decades for poor kids due to consequential accountability. I disagree strongly. Even so, Petrilli demonstrates the third best thing that he (and others at the Flypaper) do in a debate. In contrast with most reformers, he identifies the operative cause(s) that he (and his opponents) think produced change. In this case, improved reading is the locomotive of growth. The second best thing that Petrilli does is that he holds true to the honorable tradition of fairly acknowledging the positions of his opponents. This is a practice that liberal and neo-liberals think tanks have completely abandoned when they attack fellow progressives, teachers, and unions. Embodying that convention, Petrilli wrote:
Maybe the progress is mostly due to societal trends such as the end of the crack cocaine epidemic or benefits from a strong 1990s economy both of which would have made home environments of our neediest children much more hospitable. Perhaps the big increase in education spending over this time period deserves credit, or the major reduction in class sizes.
This common courtesy alerts readers to possible flaws in the next part of Petrillis argument a position that apparently Petrilli once rejected. Like Diane Ravitch, Petrilli once advocated for improved test data to be used for a Consumers Report-type system of accountability. His latest post, however, argues that consequential accountability by early adopters should get credit for much of the gains that occurred in the decade before NCLB. But NAEPs own scholars link growth in its test scores to lower poverty rates, higher-per pupil expenditures, and living in the Midwest or Northeast, and that blows a huge hole in argument that consequential accountability worked in the 1990s. After all, the early adopters who showed gains tended to be in regions that could afford to experiment before the rest of us. So, gains could have come from test-driven reform or the economy that financed the reform, or from more reliable ways for improving learning. Petrilli is on much stronger ground when he gets to the likeliest and simplest explanation. Progress, when progress occurs, means that poor and minority kids are stronger readers now. Or to phrase it differently, when poor children of color read better for comprehension, their NAEP scores increase. So, when poor kids read better is that due to a better economy, better home lives, transitory gains due to standardized testing, or enduring gains due to testing or other factors? If better schooling is the explanation for sustainable improvements, then 8th grade reading is the key metric, and that blows away the argument for consequential accountability. In 1992, 29% of America’s 8th graders were proficient or above. As the economy grew, that percentage increased by 10% to 33%. Scores dropped by 2 points during the economic decline of the first Bush term, but rebounded a point with the recovery, reaching 29% proficient 2009. In other words, the latest scores, after all of that increased spending and testing, are lower than the Clinton years. In 1992, 9% of black 8th graders were proficient in reading, During the boom years, the percentage increased 40% by 1998. The proficiency rate remained stable at 13% until 2003. Reading scores dropped a point during the stagnation of the early Bush years, and then grew to14% proficient with the recovery. Similarly, low income 8th graders reading scores dropped during the first years of NCLB, and that probably was due to the economy. Still, from 2002 to 2009, during the NCLB years, the percentage of low income 8th graders scoring proficient in reading dropped from 17% to 16%. In other words, the so-called increases in sustainable learning based on reading have gone the way of the Texas Miracle, the supposed improvements in New York City under Joel Klein, and Washington D.C.’s supposed improvements under Michelle Rhee. But then we get to the best thing about Petrilli’s honorable method of debate. Unlike most other reformers he acknowledges the reality of trade-offs. Petrilli says, Poor and minority kids are learning’ more, but their teachers are forced to stick to scripted lessons and lockstep curriculum guides. Is it worth it? Given the transitory nature of those gains in reading, of course not. And it has nothing to do with teachers’ job satisfaction, and everything in regard to the welfare of kids. There are a lot of definitions of learning. Watch Fox News and you’ll learn. Dogs learn when you rub their noses in it. Under standardized testing, our kids are taught at a early age a value system where they learn the cost of everything, and the value of nothing. Then Petrilli asks about the key trade-off, Poor and minority kids are learning’ more but many of their schools are minimizing free expression, art and music, and a sense of wonder. Thomas Jefferson best answered that question. To paraphrase, any democracy that would trade free expression and wonder for a few bubble-in test score increases is not worthy of public schools and will keep neither. When we say that this week’s geography scores for black kids were not as disappointing as those of whites, is that enough of a benefit in return for training a generation of other directed children? Please notice that Petrilli wrote, many schools. Obviously, many poor students, who have been admitted to selective schools, have benefitted, from reform. But how much benefit would anyone demand for one of his children in return for his other child being damaged? And before answering, please think of how severe the damage is to students who are subjected to the standardized testing regime. I’m not saying that all poor black children have been as badly harmed as my kids. After all, my high-accountability state of Oklahoma has seen one of the the nations largest drops in 8th grade reading scores for blacks. But when I hear from my students about the humiliations they have endured, I can not see how a 1% increase in test scores for their peers nationally has been worth it. But getting back to Petrillis thesis, if we want to help kids we need an intellectually honest debate over accountability-driven reform. The secret to successful reform is returning to the principles that Petrilli exemplified in his post. Reformers must relearn the ethics that surely they were taught in school. They must: a) accurately characterize their opponents positions, b) identify the operative mechanism(s) that they believe will produce change, and c) admit that life is full of trade-offs. No matter how sincere policy advocates are, they must acknowledge the trade-offs inherent in their agenda.