Measuring Opportunities to Learn

If the white smoke coming out of the U.S. Department is any indication, we have decided that the core tenets of No Child Left Behind will continue to drive policy.  In recent months, EdSec Duncan and his team have constructed the four pillars of their education platform, the cornerstones that we can expect to see at the heart of any NCLB reauthorization coming this year or next.  For those choosing not to pay attention, those pillars are (according to the folks on Maryland Avenue):

* Implementing college and career-ready standards and assessments
* Creating comprehensive data systems that track students throughout their education career and track teachers back to schools of education so we can better understand which programs are producing teachers that make a difference
* Recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers — paying more to teachers who work in tough schools
* Turning around chronically underperforming schools
Essentially, Duncan and company are calling for every student to have an equal opportunity to learn.  Every child should have an outstanding teacher.  We need to collect better data, establish better standards, and continue our vigilant assessment efforts to ensure a high-quality education is had by all.  And we need to identify those schools where it is not happening, and take the immediate steps to turn it around.
You’ll get no argument from Eduflack on any of that.  All are important.  All should be priorities.  All are essential if we are to continue our forward momentum on student achievement gains and begin to address the persistent problem evidenced by unmovable achievement gap.  But it is as essential as the ED talking points make it seem?
According to a new report issued by the Schott Foundation for Public Education today, the answer is no.  In its Lost Opportunity study, the Schott Foundation looked at all 50 states and their ability to provide a public education system that is both moderately proficient and high access.  To measure proficiency, they looked at 8th grade NAEP reading scores.  For access, the looked at NCES data on the likelihood that a historically disadvantaged student would attend a top quartile high school in the state. 
The results will surprise a great number of people.  Only 16 percent of states — just eight of them — are providing a moderately proficient, high-access public education to all students.  Vermont is tops in the nation, followed by Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Virginia.
Sixteen states provided a moderately proficient education, but provided low access; 17 states provided low proficiency, but high access.  And at the bottom of the list, Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas, West Virginia, and District of Columbia are providing both low proficiency and low access, with DC scoring lowest in both categories to be the big “winner” in this competition.
What is most surprising about the data is what we have to settle for when it comes to our definition of proficiency and access.  The rankings are comparative.  We have obviously have no states where we have 100-percent student proficiency or true equal access to a high-quality public education.  In fact, on proficiency, the top score is 43 percent (held by Massachusetts), meaning that nearly 60 percent of students are below proficient in 8th grade reading.  Yet that is the gold standard in the country.  By comparison, states are providing a moderately proficient education if they can get less than a third (32 percent) of their 8th graders at proficient or better in reading.
Same is true on the access side.  High-access states are those that essentially provide a 50-percent chance at equal access.  Because of some very real and tangible struggles many states have in providing true equity to all students, getting it right half the time is now the measure of success, by comparison.
What does it all mean?  To paraphrase from Robert Frost, we have many, many miles to go before we sleep.  There are no states that are truly doing it right, not when 40 percent is the gold standard.  Every state in the union has work to do when it comes to providing a high-quality, high-equity education to all students.  Every state has work to do when it comes to ensuring that historically disadvantaged students have the same access to the American educational dream as their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.  Every state has work to do when it comes to ensuring every student is on the path to success, regardless or race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.  Every state just has work to do.
We cannot close the achievement gap in this country without first addressing the opportunity gap.  Students can’t succeed if they aren’t afforded access to the schools, teachers, and resources that put them on the path to success.  That’s why information like that found in Lost Opportunity is so important.  By taking a new cut at data we have seen before (NAEP and NCES data), Schott is providing us a new perspective of our progress in education reform and the hard road ahead for continued improvement.  (As I’ve noted previously, Eduflack has worked with the Schott Foundation on its Opportunity to Learn efforts.)
The Lost Opportunity report is definitely worth a look, particularly when you get under the hood and look at the individual states and how they fare when it comes to quality, equity, and access to resources.  The data isn’t pretty, but it is fascinating.  All of the information, including the individual state reports, can be found at www.otlstatereport.org.  
Why this study?  Why now?  The answer to that is best left to Dr. John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation.  In releasing the report now, two days after the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, he said:
“This serves as a wake-up call to every governor, legislature, state education commissioner, and schools superintendent that falsely believes we are getting the job done in our classrooms.  According to their own data, only eight states are providing a moderately proficient, high-access public education to all.  After a decade of leaving no child behind, we are finding that an entire generation of students is again all but forgotten.”
Here’s hoping we are listening to the call, and ready to act on it.

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