Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.

“Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost

While it appears I was right about Teacher Appreciation Week 2014, I was a tad bit off about the source of the Zombie Apocalypse or Armageddon: The world will not end because of PISA score rankings, but because of stagnant NAEP scores by high school students.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has just released a hot-off-the-press bumper sticker that celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week 2014 by acknowledging recent NAEP data:


What happens when inept political leadership (Note: The 21st century prerequisite for holding the position of Secretary of Education appears to be a gentle blend of an absence of expertise and outright dishonesty related to NAEP reporting) collides with press-release journalism [1] (like an asteroid slamming into the Earth)?

Well, the claim made above by Schneider (“a vice president at the American Institutes of Research who previously led the government arm that administered NAEP”)—a truly ugly claim about education and teachers that appears to have been accepted without any request for evidence (Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence).

NAEP, then, once again prompts handwringing about stagnant scores and achievement gaps—and there are always charts and graphs to make the point along with the usual insincere nod to “the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time”:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement about the results, “We project that our nation’s public schools will become majority-minority this fall—making it even more urgent to put renewed attention into the academic rigor and equity of course offerings and into efforts to redesign high schools. We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as [a] nation, we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students.”

Amongst the ugliness and baseless pontificating by political leaders are absent some key points that the media will fail (again) to uncover:

  • NAEP data are released and pronouncements made, but no one really knows the cause of the data concerns. Why scores appear stagnant and why racial/socioeconomic gaps persist are often complex (although a huge and evidence-based source of both is likely inequity and poverty). The initial reactions to NAEP this time in EdWeek and HuffPo are overwhelmingly speculation by people with political agendas. If we are genuinely interested in people who are likely telling lies, it appears we may want to look at the people cited in these articles.
  • “Achievement gap” is a misnomer for “opportunity gaps,” and using standardized tests to measure and examine that gap is inherently flawed since standardized testing remains biased by race, class, and gender; and thus, the tests themselves not only measure but create the gaps. Furthermore, for any gap to close, identified populations of students would need to be treated differently, but the current policy is a common core of what students experience in schools. And another dirty little secret is that the current era of accountability has damned high-poverty and minority students to test-prep course work that in fact asks less of them (thus, it is not “states and schools” that are telling lies, but politicians who shape accountability policy who are in fact telling lies).
  • Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, we have found no correlation between how U.S. students do on test comparisons (among states or internationally) and claimed goals such as international competitiveness or the robustness of the U.S economy. None. And while we are at it, over the last three decades of accountability, we have found no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and measurable student outcomes. None. Again, it is a political lie to continue to cry “crisis” over test scores. A lie.

While I remain certain that accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is a fundamental flaw in education reform, political leadership and the media are not doing us any favors either. This latest “high school achievement crisis” based on a rush to misread NAEP data is but more of the same—lamentably so as we certainly could do a better job even within the flawed test-based culture of U.S. education, as Matthew Di Carlo has outlined.

Childhood is steeped in a series of lies—what Kurt Vonnegut has labeled “foma,” although many of these lies are not so harmless: the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, work hard and be nice.

But one truism from our youths must be accepted as fact: Action speaks louder than words.

If we apply that to the USDOE, then we are likely to recognize just who is telling lies and about what:

  1. Lie: U.S. schools, teachers, and students are failing because of low standards and expectations.
  2. Lie: New standards and new tests will save public schools.
  3. Lie: State X is worse than State Y because NAEP (or SAT) scores say so; the U.S. is falling behind Country X because PISA scores say so.
  4. Lie: Poverty is not destiny.
  5. Lie: Arne Duncan (or Bill Gates or Michelle Rhee) knows what he is talking about.
  6. Lie: Education reform is the Civil Rights issue of our time.
  7. Lie: U.S. education is struggling because of “bad” teachers who are too hard to fire.
  8. Lie: Charter school X is a “miracle” school.

Truth: The USDOE is the embodiment of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

For Further Reading

I love the smell of NAEPalm in the morning

[1] See also Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out.