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A Victory for School Reform


The results from the latest education report card are in, and the results are discouraging: well under 50 percent of American 4th and 8th graders are below proficiency in reading and math. These numbers, the result of the National Assessment of Education Progress, are actually better than those in previous years, but they still suggest that we have serious work to do in improving primary education for our students.

Yet while the national statistics are nothing to brag about, some of the individual states can take pride in their accomplishments. As USA Today notes, the two states that have posted the biggest improvements are Tennessee and Washington, DC, both of which have lingered near the bottom of national education rankings for a long time. What do these two states have in common? Both have enthusiastically embraced education reforms like charter schools and teacher evaluations:

Then, you mix in a strong dose of real-world employee evaluation, something common in the private sector but until recently mostly unknown in schools. In Tennessee, for example, a teacher could go ten years between evaluations. That changed dramatically in 2011 when Tennessee became one of the nation’s earliest adopters of professional teacher evaluations. It’s not just that the evaluations are tied to how much students learn; it’s that they involve actual feedback to teachers based on what great instruction looks like.

In Washington, D.C., teachers routinely won rave reviews despite abysmal outcomes by their students — a contradiction routinely explained away by poverty (despite higher-poverty school districts with better outcomes). That changed dramatically with its groundbreaking 2009 IMPACT teacher evaluation. At the time, national union leaders dubbed it outrageous. Last month, a national study dubbed it effective. Overall, the better teachers stayed and tried harder, encouraged by the prospect of being rewarded. The “minimally effective” teachers tended to look for other lines of work.

These test score results include charter school students, a compelling part of the story. In Washington, charter students make up nearly half of all the students and are turning in academic improvements at rates that outstrip the traditional district.

Education reforms, particularly those involving merit pay for teachers and the expansion of charter schools, are still extremely controversial, and many have doubted whether they work at all. But as time goes by, evidence is gradually piling up that these changes do, in fact, make a significant impact. The rapid success of states like Tennessee and D.C. should add fuel to the fire.

[School hallway image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • lukelea

    Here is some food for thought straight from the front lines:

    • Anthony

      Thanks Luke, good article.

  • ErikEssig

    I distrust long-time government educators to effectively implement merit pay. Although it can work, it seems to work better in theory than in practice, That’s based on my observations at charter schools.

  • Tom D

    Washington DC is not a state. Please don’t refer to it as such.

  • Anthony

    Here are a few data points from 2013 NAEP: 38% of all male 4th graders functionally illiterate; 32% American 4th graders reading below basic – or functionally illiterate; 50% of black 4th graders reading below basic; 49% of American Indian and Alaska Native 4th graders reading below basic; 28% of 8th graders reading below basic; 26% of all young male 8th graders reading below basic (and there is more). Congratulations to D.C. and Tennessee but much, much work K-8 still to be done (see Dropout Nation – NAEP Shows Need To Do Better).

  • Yisroel Markov

    “well under 50 percent of American 4th and 8th graders are below proficiency” — one of these words seems out of place.

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