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Progress over Pessimism

September 14, 2017
Sara Mead
US News & World Report

Some days, it’s easy to despair of the possibility of progress in our country and world. Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, fears over climate change, insurmountable economic inequality, seemingly intractable political polarization – one would be forgiven for thinking it would be best just to throw up our hands and crawl under the bed.

In a smaller way, I’ve noticed the same spirit of pessimism creeping into the field I work in – education policy. The tone of debate is not so much that of impending doom, as in the “Nation At Risk” era. But the education policy debates of the past few years often seem to subtly reflect an assumption that we can’t really expect our schools to do much better.

I started my career just as the George W. Bush campaign (and later administration) was rolling out its “No Child Left Behind” agenda, which promised that, through a combination of accountability, testing and scientifically based reading instruction, all students could reach grade-level standards. Those efforts, and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, likely overpromised, setting unrealistic expectations for the amount of progress that could be made, at scale in a relatively short period of time. And the ways they were implemented in states and districts sometimes had negative impacts on teachers and schools.

Yet the current educational policy dialogue seems to have swung too far in the other direction: often emphasizing the (admittedly sizable) challenges that children bring to schools over the potential of schools to better meet those children’s needs. Rather than expecting all schools to make progress towards an objective bar for student achievement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed with broad bipartisan support in late 2015, focuses on relative achievement: asking states to identify and encourage improvements in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools (and any individual subgroup that performs at the same level). And as states have developed the systems and measures they will use to identify low-performing schools, debate about these measures has often focused more on what is “fair” to schools than what is most likely to lead to meaningful improvement in how those schools serve children. The idea of expecting all schools – and groups of students within those schools – to reach standards of excellence seems to have fallen by the wayside.

What’s so frustrating about this is that there is a lot of evidence that our schools can do better, and that in fact some of them have made considerable progress.