On October 30, the American education system received a national report card, and it’s not good. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report, which monitors educational progress across a number of disciplines for 4th and 8th graders, has shown some frustrating results:
- Average reading scores for 4th and 8th graders have dropped since 2017.
- Math scores increased by one point for 4th graders, but decreased by one point for 8th-graders, with progress overall remaining flat for the past decade.
- The 4th-grade average reading score dropped 2 points from 2017 and dropped 4 points for 8th graders.
Even more sobering: if the 2019 NAEP results are reflective of all students, then only a third of 8th graders are proficient in math and reading.
Parentology spoke with Dr. Kimberly Nix Berens, the founding director of Fit Learning and Regional Director of Fit Learning (TriState), to discuss the current status of reading and math, and why education is broken in the US.
Berens will alert right away — she’s not a teacher, she’s a scientist. “I’m not a traditional educator,” she says. “I apply the science of learning to academic achievement. It’s hard to ignore or refute data.”
And the data speak volumes. For 12th graders (last evaluated in 2015), reading has gotten worse since the 90s and math has plateaued altogether. “Only 20% of graduating seniors were proficient in 2015,” Berens says. She adds that proficiency rates generally decline across school years with a smaller percentage of 12th graders scoring at proficient levels, as compared to 4th and 8th-grade students in most subjects. “In other words, students become less proficient over time in most subjects.”
“If education works properly, proficiency should increase over time, not decrease,” Berens says. “Education isn’t producing overall mastery of skills.”
According to Berens, people in the scientific community know why this is happening. The decline isn’t due to a lack of effort surrounding educational reform, which focuses on top-down policies such as school fund allocation, holding teachers accountable for outcomes, etc. “The data show this doesn’t work,” Berens says. The issue, she argues, is that nothing is being done from the bottom up.
“No one is addressing the teaching practices themselves,” she says. “We’re assigning enormous resources to ‘fix’ schools, but not allocating anything towards training teachers.”
If anything, the study stands as a condemnation of a broken education system, filled with ideological motifs that serve to placate, not fix the problem.
“If you look at the ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative from the late 90s, it made zero impact and was of no benefit to kids,” Berens states. “Because none of those policies produced effective outcomes. The teaching practices did not change.“
Berens proposes a figurative separation of church and state. “Educational resourcing is a fundamental right of every student, which is different than instructional methodology,” she says. “Both are fundamental rights of every student, but completely separate issues. Resources alone don’t produce a higher level of academic achievement. Children require access to safe schools with adequate, up-to-date materials as well as effective instructional methods.”
An example Berens cites is Project Follow Through (PFT; 1968-1977), the largest experimental project in education to date. Of the 22 methods of instruction that were evaluated, only two were based on the science of human learning and were the only methods that showed considerable gains.
Cathy L. Watkins, who conducted a critical analysis of the study at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in a 1997 reprint, claims not much has changed since then. “Meaningful school reform will not be achieved until we acknowledge that how well students learn is a function of how they are taught,” she says. “We must identify barriers to the adoption and implementation of effective instructional practices.”
Unfortunately, stakeholders rejected the PFT data outright. “Behavioral science is contradictory to traditional beliefs,” Berens says. “Instead of changing methodologies, they want to bolster the curriculum that supports their beliefs.”
Methodology based purely on ideology and politics can’t evolve, because belief systems are fixed. Negative impacts were overlooked because “outcomes were not the litmus test. It’s whatever adheres to their current belief system.”
It’s a notion that leaves most people in the scientific community shaking their heads. “We don’t want non-engineers building the bridges we drive on,” Berens says. “No one argues that science evolves to improve quality of life. Yet Betsey Devos wants to defund public education because it ‘doesn’t work’ without ever examining how we can, quite simply, teach better.”
Putting it bluntly, Berens states, “We’re in an educational crisis. Results haven’t improved because teaching practices haven’t changed. Until they do, we’re going to be caught in a vicious cycle.”
Education and Socioeconomic Advantage
School funding is based on property taxes in each district, so it’s no surprise poverty and quality of education can be mutually exclusive in underrepresented communities. Berens laments that “education is the only opportunity for kids that weren’t born into a wealthy zip code.”
The 2019 NAEP results identified kids in the 25th percentile and lower had significant drops since 2017 and comprised mostly visible minorities in low-income families. While some argue there were white children included in the lower 25th, Berens reminds, “white students, even those that struggle academically, have interventions, resources and wealthier parents. Their bad education doesn’t impact their whole life as it does with kids who are less fortunate.” She says many white students achieve success despite the education system, not because of it.
If we continue to stay the course, it’s likely our children will remain in a system that favors mediocrity and maintains the status quo. Berens would rather implement a learning model rooted in the science of human learning. For example, her system of instruction at Fit Learning has consistently produced one year’s growth in 40 hours of training with thousands of children worldwide, with results far exceeding the national average in every discipline.
For her part, Berens works tirelessly to fight for children’s’ right to education. “Every child deserves mastery and skills,” she says. “Until we shake up our teaching methodologies, we can’t expect a passing grade.”
2019 NAEP Results: American Education Gets a Failing Grade — Sources
Dr. Kimberly Nix Berens, the founding director of Fit Learning and Regional Director of Fit Learning (TriState)
Cathy L. Watkins, author of study at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies
The 74: A Disturbing Assessment