By: Kit Faiella, Policy Fellow
On April 25th, three big names in education policy research gathered to discuss the implications of the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results. All three are senior fellows at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Chester Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. He has been at the forefront of the national education debate for 35 years. Eric Hanushek is a widely-cited researcher known for his combination of economic analysis and educational issues. He has authored or edited 24 books and over 200 articles, and earned his Ph.D in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Finally, Paul Peterson is currently a government professor at Harvard University and the senior editor of Education Next magazine. Four of his more than 30 books have been recognized by the American Political Science Association as the best works in their field. The discussion was moderated by Amber Northern, the senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
“What do the scores mean?” was the first question posed to the group, and each speaker had a different take on the NAEP data: “each year we generate excitement about a flat line” was Dr. Hanushek’s response; “something changed in 2009” was Dr. Peterson’s response; and Dr. Finn noted that the achievement gains in NAEP have been inequitable. But the conversation quickly focused on accountability – did the scores flatline in 2009 because of the end of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -era provisions, or in spite of them? Dr. Chester pointed out that the heavy-handed accountability may have worked to elevate scores for a time, but the flattening NAEP scores in later years of the Act demonstrated a ceiling for student achievement under the NCLB provisions. The panelists agreed with his point, but were also quick to note that NCLB was a “bad law” which the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has done a great job in replacing.
Another interesting question, with even more interesting responses, posed to the panel was “which president had the best education policies to grow student achievement?” Dr. Finn quickly jumped at the question by responding “President Gerald Ford,” which was met with perplexed looks from the audience. But Dr. Finn then went on to describe the monumental gains President Ford made for handicapped children in the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This Act greatly expanded educational opportunities for special education students, endowing them the right to an equal education. Dr. Hanushek felt that there was not an administration he could point to, indicating that the objectives of equity and high student achievement are “waffled” by Presidents, who fixate instead on certain policies. Dr. Finn avoided the question altogether by pushing for 12th grade NAEP testing to be done at the state level.
I reflected on these responses afterwards, and was stunned that none of the panelists mentioned President Lyndon Johnson, who championed critical educational reforms as part of his Great Society platform – which included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, and the Higher Education Act. Each legislation has been instrumental in ensuring federal funds are available for the education of low-income, disadvantaged, and minority students. Perhaps even the experts tend to overthink questions at times.
The end of the conversation focused on the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, and how far the nation has progressed (or regressed) since its publication. All of the panelists agreed the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s findings helped bring education policy to the national spotlight. They all pointed to the the publication of A Nation at Risk as the catalyst for the reform movement today – for better or for worse. The panelists pointed to positive student achievement gains in charter schools in D.C. and New Orleans as a result of the publication, but also criticised No Child Left Behind as a negative consequence of it. Overall, the panel concluded there is still much to do, as indicated by the NAEP scores and progress (or lackthereof) since A Nation at Risk.