The Hoover Institution just issued two studies that should be keeping education policymakers up at night because they fly in the face of the ideology of American education. Many critical assumptions that underlay the “Common Core” debacle are also challenged. One study shows that the “achievement gap” has been mostly unchanged since the mid-fifties. The other study reveals that the cognitive development of teachers has a direct effect on the achievement of students. Each study will be discussed separately, and then addressed in tandem.
The Achievement Gap
American education “experts” love the term “the achievement gap.” It is a catchall term that describes groups who appear to get less out of school than members of other groups. Boys achieve at a higher level than girls in mathematics and sciences. Girls are better in literature and history classes. African-American girls are far more successful than African-American boys. Suburban students are more successful than either urban or rural students. Students from the Northeast outperform those from the deep South. However, the most studied achievement gap is between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Leftists are adept at pointing out these gaps and exploiting them. Using achievement gaps can justify increasing federal government control over education while decreasing local control of schools.
The supposed existence of these gaps justifies every federal program. The grandfather of them all – the school lunch program – was designed to bring up the achievements of the malnourished children of poor parents to the level of students of affluent parents. Federal funding for science programs grew when Sputnik proved that there was a gap between levels of achievement between America and the Soviet Union. Desegregation was designed to equalize the educational opportunities of racial and ethnic groups. Head Start sought to bridge the gap between the pre-school children of the rich and poor. Common Core sought to close the gap to make everyone career-ready.
Leftists now argue that the achievement gap is growing because of their favorite stalking horse, “income inequality.” Presumably, the rich are getting richer creating an educational advantage over the children of the poor.
Has “Progressive Education” Led to Progress?
The first attempt to measure the achievement gap took place in 1954. Ever since then, there have been many studies conducted at more or less regular intervals. Based on these studies, Hoover Institution scholars concluded that:
Two surprises emerge from this analysis of long-term trends in student-achievement levels and gaps across the socioeconomic distribution. First, gaps in achievement between the haves and have-nots are mostly unchanged over the past half-century. Second, steady gains in student achievement at the 8th-grade level have not translated into gains at the end of high school.
The Hoover report is troubling on several accounts. Both haves and have-nots are not progressing. Poor students today are not much better off than those in 1954. There was no rising tide of the haves that lifted all boats. Both groups have stayed more or less level over the years. More recently, elementary schools are doing better, but those gains are lost during high school.
Knowledgeable Teachers + Students = Educational Achievement
The second Hoover Institution study compares the cognitive knowledge of teachers in the United States with those of other countries. It also compares the achievement of American students with that of students from those same countries.
The goal was to answer a simple question, “Do smarter teachers make smarter students?”
Their findings are hardly surprising:
“Teachers in the United States perform worse than the average teacher sample-wide in numeracy, [mathematical ability] with a median score of 284 points out of a possible 500, compared to the sample-wide average of 292 points. In literacy, they perform slightly better than average, with a median score of 301 points compared to the sample-wide average of 295 points.”
The next question is whether the test results of the teacher are mirrored by those of the students. The study answers:
“We estimate that increasing teacher numeracy skills by one standard deviation increases student performance by nearly 15 percent…. Our estimate of the effect of increasing teacher literacy skills on students’ reading performance is slightly smaller, at 10 percent….”
Interestingly, the difference is more pronounced within two groups that are usually the focus of achievement gaps programs. The study notes that:
“Further analysis shows that the impact of teacher skills is somewhat larger for girls than for boys and for low-income students compared to wealthier students, particularly in reading.”
Thus, those addressing the achievement gaps would do well to focus on the knowledge base of the teachers. They might also consider the teachers’ wages since the study found a strong correlation related to this field. However, the data point to a far more fundamental problem.
Implications of Combining the Conclusions of the Two Studies
A long-favored fallacy within American education is more important to teach children how to think than to teach them factual material. This was a fundamental doctrine of John Dewey, “the father of American education.” These studies, taken in tandem, reflect the fallacy of that doctrine.
Millions of hours have been wasted by teaching “critical thinking skills” over the last half-century. Common Core was the latest “critical thinking skills program to fail. The Hoover Institution study clearly shows that no progress in bridging all the achievement gaps during this time.
Unfortunately, this theory has now infected two generations of teachers, producing two significant effects.
The first and most ominous effect was the impact of this critical thinking skill mantra upon the teachers who have been educated with this method. Since it has been a fixture in education since 1980, it is safe to assume that most teachers did not learn all they should have when students. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. This effect is cumulative. No one will ever be able to calculate how much less today’s teachers know because they and their teachers and their teachers’ teachers were all educated in this environment.
The second effect involves the massive amount of wasted money to pay for the generations of teachers and college professors that promoted and Implemented this failed theory. That money wrung out of three generations of parents, should have been either have been better spent or left with parents to provide for their families.
The Need for Local Control
Education’s bureaucrats hate the idea of local control of schools. They insist that larger school systems l enjoy more efficient “economy of scale.” They present education as a science that can only be practiced by highly-trained professionals. They contend that only concerted national efforts like Common Core can solve “the crisis in education.”
The two Hoover Institution studies show that there is no evidence backing these positions.
Local school boards are more likely to insist that common sense, not jargon motivate educational decisions. School boards insist that community values be included in the curriculum. The voice of the individual citizen and taxpayer carry real weight with a local school board. Most local school boards would never have been taken in by the siren song of Common Core passed by state governments.
Parents know more about their community, schools, and – most importantly – their children than all of the education bureaucrats in the world. Common sense needs to trump Common Core.