NAEP and the Imperative of Breaking Academic Sweats

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) just released its most recent results, for 2017.  How did the country’s fourth and eighth graders do in reading and math?  More-or-less the same as they’ve done over the last decade, which is not great news, especially given all the reforming going on.

What about Minnesota?  How did fourth and eighth graders here do?  As in the past, better than the national average, though our students’ scores were essentially flat too, which is not great news again, as was the size of the continuing chasm in the state between white students and large numbers of minority students.  But finishing very near the top across the country is worthy of measured congratulations, and Minnesota students, educators, and parents have mine.  Putting aside whatever disagreements I have with teacher unions, administrator associations and the like, I certainly acknowledge that the lengthy lack of real academic progress is frustrating and painful to talented teachers and administrators who work hard, love their students, and want them to succeed.

Still, a less-celebratory point needs to be made, too.

Interpretations of why American students largely have been locked in place, as well as why the United States is academically behind a surprising assortment of countries, generally focus either on (1) school policies and the like; or (2) on the cultural environment in which schools operate.

Many people don’t like what I just did: Focus simultaneously on dual primacies when it comes to K-12 shortcomings and failures: the kinds of misdeed teacher unions, for example, are culpable of and the kinds of things parents are guilty of.  If we were to focus on culture in this instance, doing so would not imply, as many contend, letting anyone or any institution off any policy hook, as everything counts.  Nevertheless, people in public situations are usually much more comfortable talking about policy matters, such as money, rather than cultural issues, even comparatively tame ones such as laziness.

I have the right to say this and I can safely do so this because I was an irresponsible junior high school student.  I followed up by being an irresponsible high school student.  So, I’m not being unfair or holier when I note that while millions of current U.S. students work very hard millions of others don’t come close, preoccupied with as they are with multiple screens and other distractions.  As a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s I had only network television for sidetracking.  No ESPN to speak of.

Bottom line: NAEP scores in the United States, and academic performance more generally, will not rise sufficiently until more kids break academic sweats.  This is the case no matter how strong or how weak educational policies are or come to be.  Just as culture matters, so does behavior, though the two are tightly entwined, of course, when it comes to learning.

Or if you will, regarding perpetual debates over what counts more when it comes to educational mediocrity, policies or culture, the answer is “yes.”