The More Things Change…

The Obama years were a time of dramatic change in education policy. Teachers are being observed significantly more than they were in 2008. They are being evaluated using test scores and VAM to a much greater degree. There are more charter schools, and 2008-2012 saw particularly fast expansions of “no-excuses” charter schools like KIPP. Most states adopted the Common Core standards, and most states adopted harder testing regimens to go along with them. Obama’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, along with over $100 billion in 2009 stimulus funds, used federal money as leverage to get states to adopt a more aggressive stance on educational reform. As many people have noted, this frenzy of activity did nothing to change overall average NAEP scores apart from a slight decline, but given that demographic change (and decreasing median income) among families with kids in public schools is much more rapid than among all American adults, this may not be all that much of a surprise.

The original impetus to the education reform movement, especially as articulated by Teach for America, was “closing the achievement gap”- increasing equity rather than average improvement. During this period, large districts created whole “Departments of Equity” to review and scrutinize racial gaps. It’s worth looking, therefore, at how the white/black achievement gap has changed during this period of frenetic policy activity. Judging from the average of all district gaps provided by the Stanford Education Data Archive, it essentially hasn’t changed at all. There was a slight increase in the gap in English Language Arts in 2013, perhaps due to the adoption of harder ELA tests as part of Common Core implementation, and other than that there’s no difference among different elementary and middle school grades and no real change from 2009 to 2013.


The Iron Law is the Iron Law; changing people’s outcomes dramatically through social policy is very rare, and negative impacts from social policies are as common as positive ones. We can spend money on making schools into pleasant places for people to go; we can give kids space and room to grow up in; but they are the ones doing the growing up. This doesn’t mean teachers or schools are unimportant- like parents, teachers and schools matter a lot for how we experience childhood, even if they are relatively unimportant to the particulars of how we turn out.

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