“One-Third of Fourth Graders are Functionally Illiterate”

Posted: Jan 28, 2013 5:00 PM

The U.S. education system is failing our kids and has been for decades. Thus, the first step towards solving this problem is admitting that we have one. And we certainly do -- as AFP’s Casey Given points out in his op-ed in The Hill today:

Since 1983, the freshmen high school graduation rate has increased a measly 1.8 percent. Meanwhile, student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has stagnated, dropping by 1 point in reading and increasing by merely 4 points in math among 17-year-olds from the early 1980s to 2008. Today, one-third of fourth graders are functionally illiterate as judged by the NAEP.So, what exactly went wrong?

The answer is not a lack of funding, as teachers unions love to blame. To the contrary, school spending has increased 80 percent since 1983 after adjusting for inflation – that’s triple the growth of enrollment over the same time period. The answer is not low academic standards either, as every major federal education reform since the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 has required states to raise them. Rather, instead of throwing more money and tying more red tape to the problem, I believe the answer to achieving real educational reform is one of incentives.

The status quo isn’t working. We throw unconscionable amounts of money into “fixing” American public schools with little or no results. The question, then, is what is the best way to bolster student test scores and raise graduation rates? According to Given, the answer is (a) giving parents more choice about where they send their kids to school and (b) giving teachers more “pedagogical freedom”:

Rather, the success of school choice initiatives over the past two decades have taught us that effective educational reform comes from embracing the diversity of our schools instead of suppressing it. By empowering teachers with greater pedagogical freedom instead of more standards, they are incentivized to tailor their teaching more effectively to students’ needs. By empowering parents with school choice instead of an arbitrary assignment by zip code, they are incentivized to choose the best educational environment for their child.

Proof keeps pouring in that this decentralized approach works. The Harlem Success Academy charters in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods are some of the best schools in the Empire State is an excellent example. Last year alone, 97% of Academy student passed the math and 88 percent passed the English sections of New York’s student assessment test, outperforming the city’s public schools as a whole by 31 percent and 33 percent. Most amazingly, 100 percent of Academy students passed the science section.

The evidence for school choice is not just anecdotal. The largest meta-analysis of charter schools in 2009, found that over two-thirds of studies conducted after 2001 concluded charter schools performed either the same or significantly better than their district school counterparts.

School choice has proven to align incentives towards improving students’ learning instead of complying with the latest one-size-fits-all reform from Washington. It is not until our public school system at large begins to adopt such pedagogical freedom that we will begin to see major improvements in student achievement – especially among the students most in need. It is not until we empower every parent with the choice to send their child to the safest and best school available that our nation will cease to be “at risk.”

It seems to me that education reform is one of those issues lawmakers constantly talk about for political purposes -- “we need to build a 21st century education system” -- yet nothing ever gets done. President Obama, for example, likes to use soaring rhetoric about “winning the future,” but how can we win the future if tens of millions of American children are “functionally illiterate”? The simple answer is we can’t. Until Republicans and Democrats roll up their sleeves and take on the special interests -- i.e., the organizations that oppose sensible reforms and defend the status quo at every turn -- America will continue to decline.

One Republican lawmaker said fairly recently that the greatness of America begins with its people. Well, I agree, and think it’s high time we start remembering that -- before it's too late, and millions more American children grow up without the requisite knowledge and skills they need to be successful.

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