The bad news about U.S. schools just keeps coming. We already knew from federal studies that students lost significant ground during the Covid pandemic and its related school shutdowns. What’s alarming about the latest research, published in July by the research organization NWEA, is that American children continued backsliding over the most recent school year, making less progress in reading and math than their counterparts before the pandemic. Rather than catching up, our students are falling further behind, succumbing to “education’s long Covid,” as the researchers put it.
This should be a national emergency, yet outside of a small group of policy experts and academics, and a handful of politicians, the reaction to America’s massive learning loss has been eerily quiet. Responsibility for reversing this loss extends from families to teachers to state and national leaders. Until all those responsible for educating Americans acknowledge the crisis and commit to addressing it, learning loss is likely to continue.
The country is in desperate need of leaders who will speak the truth about what’s happening in our K-12 schools, and are willing to make the hard choices to fix it. Simply put, we need to bring some tough love back to American education.
A former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, put it well recently when he wrote, “This is a five-alarm fire, but most elected officials aren’t responding or even discussing it. There is no plan from Washington, no joint session of Congress, no Oval Office address. What’s a presidential bully pulpit for, if not this?”
It wasn’t so long ago that presidents, education secretaries and governors were willing to do the tough work of reforming our schools. Especially during the era of results-based school accountability — epitomized by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, but lasting from the 1990s into the 2010s — we saw significant progress among even our poorest and lowest-achieving students. That was no coincidence — these were the very groups that No Child Left Behind intended to help, by implementing test score requirements and expecting everyone to reach the same standards. And it worked, likely contributing to higher high school graduation and college attainment rates, and possibly to better real-life outcomes, too.
It’s true that No Child Left Behind was imperfect. There were fierce debates over “teaching to the test” and “drill and kill” instruction; about closing low-performing schools versus trying to fix them; and about the link between student achievement and family poverty. But once the law’s shortcomings became apparent, policymakers responded by adopting common standards and improving standardized tests, so as to encourage higher-level teaching. They poured billions into school turnarounds, invested in stronger instructional materials and started grading schools on how much progress their kids made from year to year, rather than focusing on one snapshot in time — an approach that is markedly fairer to high-poverty campuses. Still, the bipartisan effort that was No Child Left Behind ultimately fell apart as our politics fractured.
Then came the pandemic. Despite Congress’s increased education investment, student learning continued to suffer. And now here we are, with decades of academic progress washed away and achievement trends still moving in the wrong direction.
Some of the reasons for this are clear. We face a massive chronic absenteeism crisis, with even some affluent high schools having a hard time getting teenagers back to class. Meanwhile, in a misguided attempt to lower student stress, schools nationwide have lowered grading standards, instituting policies like the “no zeros” rule, whereby the lowest mark a student can receive on any assignment or test is 50 percent. Kids are smart: They figure out how they can do the least amount of work, and come to school the minimal amount of days, and still get an A or B.
Virtually all schools and districts have enjoyed a vacation from accountability. Almost nobody is worried about state officials shutting their campuses because of low performance, or forcing district schools to replace their principals or teachers. When Texas recently moved to take over Houston’s schools and replace the district school board and superintendent, it was noteworthy because that kind of action, a throwback to the No Child Left Behind days, is now unusual.
If we’re going to get our schools out of their deep hole, we need to take action at scale. This doesn’t mean ignoring the support and assistance schools require. We learned back in the 2000s that it’s not enough to hold schools accountable when they also need help and know-how. It was an oversimplification to focus only on the lack of incentives, political and otherwise, to make tough changes. A big issue was that many schools didn’t have the expertise to actually turn themselves around, choose high-quality curriculum and improve teaching and learning.
“Teaching to the test” and other problems with No Child Left Behind stemmed from schools resorting to misguided practices to meet requirements. Under pressure to boost scores, but without the training to know what to do, some educators engaged in endless practice testing, and stopped instruction in any subject that was unlikely to be on the state assessment. In a few places, educators even resorted to outright cheating. They likely felt they had no choice, because they hadn’t been given the tools to succeed.
But after a decade of building capacity, offering helping hands and adding funds, it’s time once again to couple skill-building with will-building. Schools that aren’t spending their federal largess wisely, and that aren’t doing enough to catch their kids up, should face stern consequences. That doesn’t mean bringing back No Child Left Behind, but it could and should mean tough interventions for persistent underperformance.
Kids, too, should know that it’s time to hit the books again. We need to rethink our lax grading policies, make clear to parents that their children need to be at school and bring back high school graduation exams and the like to ensure that students buckle down. They must gain skills — and sometimes that means strengthening their will to learn.
Education matters. Achievement matters. We need leaders who are willing to say so, and educators who are willing to act like these simple propositions are true.
Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
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