Stern talks up the "Massachusetts miracle," where the state scored first in the nation in the latest 4th and 8th grade math and reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation's report card for student achievement and standardized benchmark for every state. The state's average scores on the NAEP have also improved at far higher rates than most other states. However, there is a more nuanced explanation for the uptick in student achievement in Massachusetts. We might ask, "Miracle for which students?"As I noted in "A Pox on Both Their Houses," the debate between instructivists and incentivist (those who favor market based reforms like school choice) is largely lacking in any imagination as the two sides begin to calcify their positions as to what is important.
To be sure, having the highest scores in the nation and highest gains on the NAEP, as Massachusetts does, is an admirable achievement. For a fuller picture of what is happening, however, Education Week's 2008 Quality Counts report for Massachusetts offers more context. Quality Counts notes Massachusetts ranks very low in terms of progress on the student achievement gap between low-income and higher income students. Massachusetts ranks 46th and 50th for the poverty gap—the difference in NAEP scores between students eligible for the free-lunch program and non-eligible students. In 4th grade NAEP reading scores, for example, Massachusetts has a 29.1 point gap compared with the national average of 26.8 points. In fact, the reading gap in Massachusetts has grown by almost 3 points between 2003 and 2007 on the NAEP. For 8th grade NAEP math scores, the state has a 31.4 gap compared to the 26 point national average.
In Massachusetts, middle class and wealthy children have clearly benefited from a focus on content and standards. However, it is less clear how this curricular focus has benefited the most disadvantaged students in the state, who are now being left even further behind.
Students with wealthier and higher-educated parents are thriving under a strong standards-based regiment. But content standards have had little impact on one of the most intractable of education dilemmas. It has not closed the achievement gap between lower and higher income students, where not even 50 percent of these students score proficient in reading or math.
That's the major reason why school reformers shouldn't place too many eggs in the "instructionist" basket. Families still need school choice. Public schools, especially in low-performing urban districts, still need competition, which gives students a right of exit to higher performing schools and gives public schools an incentive to improve in order to keep students enrolled.
However, in the place where the rubber meets the road, the urban districts, the battle lines are not nearly as clearly defined. Indeed, you will see charter schools and other choice programs working with both a market approach and changes to content standards, in the same facility. The truth of the matter is that a combined approach is probably the one way in which a true change in the education of poor, minority and otherwise disadvantaged kids will occur and the achievement gap actually closed.
The debate will continue to rage as each side tries to find support for its position. Yet, we may be decades away from finding out which side is right and may even never find out. Educational entrepeneurs, on the other hand, will eventually find a way and they are the true direction finders.