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Sorry, Nicholas Kristof, There’s Still No Proof School Reform Helps

Reformers are claiming that new NAEP scores prove reform works. Here's why they're dead wrong.

Photo Credit: Africa Studios


It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry when an “All-Purpose-Pundit” at The New York Times takes it upon him/herself to write a commentary about education.

“Thomas Friedman is infamous for his uninformed pieces on education,” Larry Ferlazzo, a full-time schoolteacher and ubiquitous education commentator on the Internet recently observed. And there’s “ David Brooks, who is equally off-base.”

Diane Ravitch, lamenting a recent column by Times editorialist Bill Keller, who lazily blamed widespread problems with education performance on university teacher preparation programs (without mustering a shred of evidence to support his claim), concluded, “It would be wonderful if the New York Times elevated someone to the op-ed page as a columnist who actually knew something about education.”

Staying true to form last week was Times opinionator Nicholas Kritsof. Prompted by the latest results of the National Assessment of Education Progress, aka “the Nation’s Report Card,” Kristof observed on Twitter, “Latest NAEP school test scores suggest that school reform helps. Big improvements in DC & Tennessee, both centers of reform.”

Since 1990, the “Main NAEP,” given every other year in grades 4 and 8 to measure national and state achievement in reading and math, has led to all sorts of overblown claims. This year’s results have been subjected to the same tendencies – despite the fact that the results were described as “stubbornly mixed” by reliable news outlets, with stagnation in 4th grade reading and math and slight gains in 8th grade reading only.

Unfortunately, delusions suffered by Kristof and his cohort are not limited to pages of The New York Times.

Cue Up The Conservative Messaging Machine

It’s perhaps understandable why Kristof would make the claims he does about the NAEP results, given the level of propaganda pumped into the airwaves by those who claim to be “reforming” education.

Hard at work in the messaging mill every day are a plethora of highly paid operatives in conservative “think tanks” whose missions are to impose their policy prescriptions on public schools.

These outlets were quick to jump on just the sort of statistic Krstof did. Because some states that have implemented the favored policy reforms had gains in their NAEP scores that outpaced the national average, these “analysts” made the case that “reforms” – such as using high-stakes test scores to rate teachers and schools, and increasing the numbers of unregulated, privately operated charter schools – are “working.”

To amplify this message, Michelle Rhee went on camera at MSNBC to claim score gains produced by the District of Columbia, the school system she once led, and Tennessee, a school system she has had considerable influence in, were vindication of very controversial policies that led to her ouster from the D.C. system.

Such claims are truly silly.

As sociologist and professor Aaron Pallas at the Hechinger Institute pointed out, the difference between the NAEP scores from this year and those in the previous year can’t be viewed as “indicator[s] of growth or decline.” To do so would prove only how little you understand about statistics.

To ascertain any real growth or decline in students’ academic achievement, NAEP would need to measure the very same individual students it did in previous years. “But NAEP does not measure the same individual at two points in time. Instead, it measures different individuals at each assessment,” Pallas explained (emphasis original).

The 4th-graders and 8th-graders that NAEP assessed for this year in Tennessee and the District of Columbia aren’t the same ones that were assessed in previous years. Their demographics are different. Their experiences are different. “These changes in demography could account for differences in the average performance.”