The announcement of the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading scores was uneventful to say the least. Not much has changed since 1992 and almost nothing has changed since 2009.
How many more announcements about poor reading achievement in eighth grade and fourth grade must we tolerate before everyone realizes that teachers cannot change these outcomes alone? We need to hold schools, families, communities, and government accountable for our youth’s reading achievement.
If a first grader living in poverty has only half the number of words in their vocabulary as a middle class counterpart, the Matthew Effect takes over - those with more benefit more, and those with less do not gain the same level of benefits.
Teachers do need to accept a large responsibility in facilitating learning. They must hold high expectations for all students, they must provide high quality and effective instruction, and most importantly, they must be culturally competent and responsive to students unlike themselves. That’s a tall order, but that alone - and all the merit pay in the world - is not going to close the achievement gaps if we don’t look at other sociological factors around race, class, language and culture.
We believe that all learners are capable of high levels of achievement. We share a vision of educational success, but from two very different worldviews. We grew up in two different Americas, during two different times.
Dr. Patricia Edwards has spent a successful career researching, writing, and developing programs and strategies on behalf of disenfranchised minorities, as well as preparing teachers to teach in challenging situations. As a black child in the Jim Crow South during the fifties and sixties, she attended segregated schools for 10 of her 12 years, before attending an all-white high school for the last two years. These experiences taught her that a good education can change your life and the life of others.
Dr. Susan Piazza spends her time researching, writing, and preparing mostly white, middle-class teachers like herself to be more culturally competent and effective in today’s diverse classrooms. Piazza has lived and worked in various parts of North America, and has learned that cultural competence comes in many different forms and requires time, first-hand experience, and a great deal of reflective practice.
The two of us would like to provide a cautionary message about NAEP scores: They represent much more than the effectiveness of U.S. curriculum and instruction. They represent trends in life experiences that our youth encounter in access to opportunities and a good education. NAEP scores can be used to thoughtfully analyze social factors that go beyond percentages, demographics and quick fixes.
To complicate matters often causes listeners to glaze over. It seems that issues - like test scores - must be simple to make headlines and gain national attention. Yet, keeping things simple perpetuates the superficial discussion of the achievement gaps that have been documented for the past 20 years. Reading achievement, for example, is not stagnant because of lazy teachers, lazy parents, or teachers’ unions. Almost everything contributes to academic achievement in our post-modern society.
We are not surprised that the NAEP reading scores show no significant change overall. To spin it positively, our nation’s students are maintaining achievement even with increases in demographic diversity and decreases in funding. To spin it negatively, all of the federal and state efforts to ensure no child is left behind are indeed leaving many behind. What do we have to show for all of the billions of dollars that have been used to support No Child Left Behind and Reading First Grants? Not much!
We’d like to mention an argument put forth by Gloria Ladson-Billings, which points to an education debt we need to pay down. This is not a financial argument. Instead, the debt represents years of inequitable access to schools, health care, libraries, housing, and other sociological factors. Race, class, language, and other forms of difference create hierarchies of privilege and disadvantage that feed the achievement gaps.
Ignoring these sociological factors will ensure that NAEP scores stand still, as they have. For example, 2011 data shows that 74 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of eighth graders scoring below the 25th percentile were eligible for free and reduced lunch. Poverty is not something schools can eradicate with good teaching, yet there is a strong relationship between home resources and reading achievement.
Don’t misunderstand our message, we still want to hold teachers accountable for teaching effectiveness and cultural competence. After all, we are teacher educators and understand how powerful an effective teacher can be. But there have been years of accumulated education debt around issues of race, class, and language that perpetuate the academic achievement gaps between racial and ethnic minorities.
We urge you to remember these issues when viewing simplified reports of NAEP results that point fingers in one direction. There’s a saying that when you point your finger at someone, there is always a thumb and three fingers pointing back at you.
Education doesn’t start at school, it starts at home and in the community. We all have a role to play in closing achievement gaps. What are we doing to work on this debt? We give our time, write grants to support literacy initiatives in the community, create service learning opportunities for our students, and find ways to support family and community literacy. These actions will ultimately support academic success and schools’ effectiveness. We write blogs to change the subject from statistical analysis of test scores to an examination of the sociocultural and humanistic influences on test scores.
What are you doing in your community to pay down the debt?
A frequently quoted African proverb is that it takes a village to raise a child. One thing we can all agree on is that the NAEP scores indicate underachievement when it comes to how well adults are addressing this long-standing problem of equity in education.
Dr. Patricia Edwards was the 2010-2011 president of the International Reading Association and is a distinguished professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. Dr. Susan Piazza is an associate professor of Literacy Studies at Western Michigan University.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.