The Sky Isn’t Falling

Training demonstration at Homestead Air Reserve BaseAs if teachers in the Granite State didn’t already have enough demands to respond to, following the 2016 election teachers have been increasingly the scapegoats for nothing less than the death of democracy.*

Recently, an important leader in the state, and champion of historical education jumped into the fray in a letter to the editor, where he maligned the “alarming history deficit” present in the thousands of students who visit the New Hampshire Historical Society each year. As I have done in other blog posts in the past, I find myself in a position of wanting to defend public school teachers and, more generally, the quality of public schooling in the United States.  I am compelled to disagree with this and similar narratives of crisis that tinge statements about education in our country.

It’s important to acknowledge first that I share Mr. Dunlap’s concern about the lack of time spent on historic and civic education in public education in the elementary years. No Child Left Behind yielded a hyper focus on math, reading and high stakes assessments like the NECAP (and now the SBAC).  Something had to give, and this meant many schools devoted disproportionate amounts of instructional time to those subjects typically to the detriment of social studies and the arts (among other things like recess, by the way!).  In many ways, he is quite right to highlight this as a negative consequence of the Accountability Movement. Yet, while I agree that things aren’t great, I disagree that things are getting worse.

In fact, evidence suggests when it comes to both civic and historic knowledge nationwide things are actually improving significantly.

Evidence suggests when it comes to BOTH civic and historic knowledge nationwide things are actually improving significantly.

  • Since 1998, eighth grade student performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) civic literacy and historic literacy test has risen.
  • Score gains for Hispanic-American eighth graders have narrowed what was once an intractable “achievement gap” by 14 percentage points since 1998.
  • White children, Asian American children, children enrolled in Free-and-Reduced Lunch programs (a proxy for childhood poverty), non-English speakers and children with disabilities have also seen a significant improvement in scores since 1998. This data can be accessed on the NAEP website.
  • In NAEP history assessment, the percentage of children scoring at or above the “proficient” category in history rose significantly since 1994. (Recall, “Proficient” and “Advanced” are the top two categories of the NAEP. This would be similar to scoring 3 or 4 out of four possible points on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.)
  • Regarding the sudden drop in civic and historical knowledge, the data does not appear to bear this out with no decline in civic knowledge or historical knowledge on the NAEP.
  • In both civics and history, New Hampshire does significantly better than the national population. How do we know that when the data isn’t disaggregated for these tests at the state level? The data show that English-native speakers, white children, children living in homes with a college graduate and children being raised outside of poverty perform much better than the national average – a phenomenon called “the Achievement Gap.” Similar to all of New England, New Hampshire’s über-homogeneous, English speaking, college-educated population generally does exceptionally well on these measures of academic success. In fact, the New England states – and NH in particular — perform equivalently to the highest performing nations globally.

While there is reason to take heart, there is not yet reason to celebrate.

Civic and historical awareness in our children and adolescents can still improve. While the average scores on civic knowledge nationwide are consistently well above the “basic” level, only 23% of our nation’s children score in the proficient or advanced range.

Despite these clear shortcomings, I caution Granite Staters against adopting the tone of crisis in our state’s public schools. This is because in my work with Granite State teachers, I have become acutely aware of the fact that this narrative of crisis, and “lack of knowledge “of our children, unfairly maligns and shames an already battered profession.

The narrative of failure and crisis in our schools unfairly maligns and shames an already battered profession.

While it’s tempting to adopt the narrative of crisis, where we express shock, alarm and even disgust with what our children don’t know, Granite Staters must work productively and positively to continue to improve the outlook for civic health in New Hampshire.

So, instead of shaming students and their teachers for what they don’t know, we might focus on the many successes in our education system that reflect the hard work and dedication of our state’s public teaching force. When looking for outliers and success stories, it’s easy to identify high-leverage, promising practices that yield results and use that to our advantage for teaching children how to engage. So what are some of the success stories?

  • Between 2013 and 2015, the state of New Hampshire’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders ranked the first, second and third in the nation on math, reading and science. In other words for the last seven years, New Hampshire public schools have outperformed more than 47 other states in our scores on these tests.
  • Nationwide scores are improving in math and literacy. Some academics and researchers have credited the shift to the Common Core State Standards, and the massive push in professional development and training for teachers to support it – as the underlying cause. Civics and Social Studies advocates must leverage the social studies literacy standards embedded in the Common Core State Standards to assure that more time is spent in these areas including non-fiction “informational text” literacy and writing. Informing oneself is a civic virtue and connecting these dots takes very little effort.
  • One highly-regarded academic, Diane Ravitch, an active public school advocate, former Deputy Secretary of Education during the Bush administration, and researcher at New York University, has frequently highlighted data showing the improvement of our nation’s school children on multiple measures of academic success – besides the high-stakes tests on which many middle and high school students exert questionable effort.

Finally, we must understand:

There has simply never been a “golden era” of historical knowledge.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for college educated Baby Boomers and those from the Greatest Generation, but these are the facts. It’s likely that rather than our kids getting dumber, the nature of knowledge, the patterns of behavior, and the skills of engagement look differently when viewed through the generational lens.

We have many assets working to our advantage here in New Hampshire beginning with our talented and dedicated teaching profession who have put New Hampshire consistently at the top. We need to stop asking why our kids don’t know “basic facts” and begin to ask how we can transfer our state’s children’s abundant talents and passions for other subjects into history and civics. We have an excellent foundation to make this happen, it’s a matter of framing the challenge appropriately and directing our energy for positive change.

*See, for example, this article (https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2016-11-22/donald-trumps-election-is-civic-educations-gut-check) which makes the case that most civics teachers’ lack of content expertise is to blame. The author goes on to claim (without providing any numbers to substantiate the claim) that civics teachers are all primarily athletic coaches

Teacher tracking: Higher ed group worried about proposed legislation

Proposed federal legislation that would track teachers and the institutions that educate them after graduation has the New Hampshire Institutions of Higher Education Network concerned about its implications — specifically, that it’s too difficult to implement and that it will discourage teachers from working with special-needs populations for fear that there won’t be enough evidence to prove the teachers are making progress.

Dr. Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell, secretary of the IHE Network and professor of education at Saint Anselm College, said that on a federal level, there is increasing interest in teacher progress and regulating teacher education programs.
“They are being looked at in terms of, ‘how do we control what they are doing more?’” Terrell said.
The proposed legislation is still being drafted. It would see training institutes like Saint Anselm track teachers after graduation and into the classrooms by examining how their students perform, Terrell said.
“We’re not … equipped with the resources like that to track our graduates in their own classrooms,” she said. “It’s statistically sort of shady, the further and further you get out.”
Terrell likened it to Harvard Medical School having to track its graduates into their practices and measure them based on patient health status. Doctors who choose to work with cancer patients, for example, see a higher mortality rate in their caseloads. “It’s cumbersome for us to follow our teachers out of the classroom. It’s a stretch to say that everything that happens in the classroom is because of a teacher,” Terrell said, noting many other factors are at play.
She said it is even more statistically invalid to trace it back to the program in which the teacher was trained.
The federal government currently measures the quality of schools as a whole based on children’s scores on high-stakes standardized tests, like the Smarter Balanced test. The new legislation would put more of an emphasis on individual teachers — if a teacher doesn’t add value over the course of the year, the teacher’s quality will be called into question. “There are a lot of teachers who work with populations where it’s tough to move the needle,” Terrell said.
Terrell gave the example of the Head Start program, where it’s harder to gauge and show success on measures with standardized tests because of socioeconomic and learning challenges. “The implications [of the legislation] for teachers are [that] it’s not a good way of showing their quality. It’s going to dissuade people from working in populations with high needs,” Terrell said. “The ones that deal with the most at-risk kids are going to be the most at risk for not showing progress.”
The impact on institutions that statistically aren’t producing enough effective teachers could mean the loss of accreditation from the state and loss of Title I funds from the federal government.

As seen in the March 19, 2015 issue of the Hippo.