If “The Poor Will Always Be with Us,” So Too Will Low Test Scores

Frederick Hess’ latest contribution misunderstands my position in one respect: I would never suggest, and have never suggested, that the social and economic reforms I mentioned should be supported primarily because they would raise student achievement. There are many reasons, for example, to want to ensure that children have adequate health care besides the fact that it would enable them to miss less school because of illness. My only point in this regard is that it is fanciful to think that if only they had better teachers, children will have high rates of success despite poor health including more frequent illness, more frequent iron deficiency anemia, lead poisoning, and asthma; greater family economic stress, including inadequate housing resulting in high rates of mobility, and living in unsafe neighborhoods with high rates of crime and drug abuse. Academic progress is not the only, or even the best reason to fix these things, but if we don’t fix them, expectations that better teachers alone will overcome them make no sense.

Mr. Hess is skeptical that public policy can fix these problems. That is his right, notwithstanding the ability of other industrial democracies to do a somewhat better job in narrowing inequality. But if “the poor shall always be with us,” so too will low test scores and other aspects of disadvantaged students’ inadequate achievement. It is unreasonable and irresponsible to expect schools and teachers to overcome social class differences while exempting every other institution and public official from taking action to do so.

With regard to my claim (and that of Jennifer Rice in her book) that we have made little progress in defining teacher quality, Mr. Hess cites work of Dan Goldhaber, Susanna Loeb, and Tom Kane. What their research has in common is a willingness to use standardized basic skills test scores in reading and (more often, or) math as their sole dependent variable. That we are so willing to entertain the legitimacy of such definitions is one of the tragic legacies of the frenzy stimulated by A Nation at Risk — a frenzy, as I pointed out in my opening essay, that would have horrified Risk’s authors who were terribly concerned about critical thinking skills and other outcomes of education — the “fostering of a common culture,” for example.

Even in their own terms, definitions of teacher quality based on students’ standardized test scores are flawed. Teachers whose students get high test scores (or value added) in math are not necessarily the same as those whose students get high scores in reading. And it is purely speculative to assume that teachers who get high scores in one of these are also teachers who inspire high achievement in history, or science, or citizenship, or inquiry, or democratic habits. I’d say that a teacher is of high quality only if she achieves balanced success in all of these. The research of Goldhaber, Loeb, or Kane cannot help me identify such teachers.

I do note that none of the Cato Unbound respondents, Frederick Hess included, really addressed the question I posed previously. I pointed out that there is now overwhelming evidence that, although there are some wonderful examples of superior charter and private schools flourishing in a deregulated environment, average achievement of charter and private schools does not seem to be substantially better. So I asked:

If we deregulate the teacher market, we will undoubtedly attract some very high quality teachers who might not have made it through the certification hoops. We will also attract some incompetents, who will do serious harm to our children. How many of the latter are we willing to tolerate in order to gain the benefits of the former? Before developing an opinion on Hess’ and Strong’s views, I’d like to hear more about how they propose to address this widely-ignored aspect of choice.

Mr. Hess responds that “sensible deregulation must be coupled with attention to quality control.” To me, ‘quality control’ sounds awfully much like ‘re-regulation.’ This response begs my question. Does Mr. Hess claim that deregulation is not really the answer, but rather that we simply need to substitute a new set of regulations (euphemistically, ‘quality control’) for the old ones?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”