Ep. 148: A Look Back at October and Forward to November

November 12, 2019

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick and Director of State Relations Lauren Hodge discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states. They focus on NAEP results, our recent Schooling in America survey and more.

Michael Chartier: All right, everybody, welcome to another EdChoice Chat. I am your host, Michael Chartier, and it’s the month of November so we’re going to be covering some things that EdChoice has done in November and October. We’re going to be covering those NAEP scores that just came out. Jason Bedrick’s going to give us a little overview of those, and Lauren and I are going to talk a little bit about our Schooling in America survey, SIA as we call it internally. And we’re going to be talking about some of the data that we found polling. We oversampled teachers, so we got a little bit of understanding and we’re going to give you a little bit about what teachers think in terms of education, because I know we have some other… The folks that actually did the survey, they’re going to talk about some of this stuff in depth, so we’re going to do it on a broad fashion. So, we’ll hopefully cover some fun things for you.

Jason is here in studio. It’s kind of amazing to have him flying all the way from the cactus patch. We picked the coldest dates in Indianapolis to bring him out here just to haze him. So, Jason, thank you very much for coming into the studio.

Jason Bedrick: Great to be here. And it’s like my old days in New Hampshire, the frozen tundra, so I’m enjoying it.

Michael Chartier: Excellent. So, you’ve kind of digested a little bit of the NAEP scores. Betsy DeVos talked a little bit about this, and others in the movement have talked about this. Can you tell us a little bit for our listeners what NAEP is and why I should care about it?

Jason Bedrick: Right, so NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card. This is a test that is administered nationwide, but it is not tied to any particular state’s accountability metrics. It’s given to a random sample of schools. It’s not given to every school in the state so that you can see what every school’s score is and tie carrots and sticks to them, which is important, because when you do tie those carrots and sticks, you can actually change the behavior of schools so that they can quote unquote, “teach to the test,” or engage in specific test prep activities so it can distort the score. But here because you have a random sample, because there’s no accountability metrics that are attached to it, researchers have much more confidence that what the scores reflect is actually something real about how well the students have mastered certain skills, in particular the English language and math.

Michael Chartier: Jason, why, if we have this NAEP test… You know, I’m in Indiana, we have ILEARN. Why should my kids take the ILEARN test? Why not just take the NAEP test?

Jason Bedrick: A lot of states want to have that accountability as well, so they want to have a test that every single school is going to take so that they can make an apples to apples comparison. Whether that’s the right approach or wrong approach we’ll save for a different podcast, but different states are going to have different tests. Even with Common Core and having two testing consortia, there are still a bunch of states that are not a part of those, and even there, things are going to vary somewhat from to state.

Here with the NAEP, you’re getting one test all across the country so that you’re able to assess how well students in fourth grade and then at eighth grade are doing when it comes to reading proficiently and how proficient they are in math skills. So, this is where we are, and this year’s results are pretty grim. Betsy DeVos said that the results are frankly devastating. This country is in a student achievement crisis and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students.

So, I mean almost echoing the Nation at Risk report 30 years ago. She didn’t say that if a foreign power did this to us, we would consider it an act of war. She didn’t go that far, but she almost went that far. She’s saying that we are in crisis, and there are some data that are very concerning that she points to. Two out of three of our nation’s children are not proficient readers. She points to the fact that fourth grade reading is declining in 17 states, that eighth grade reading has declined in 31 states. The gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, even though we’ve spent a trillion dollars in federal spending over the past 40 years, so that is significant.

Overall, if we take a step back and a deep breath, we’ve definitely stalled, so you’ve had a two-decade-long flat performance, even actually these results slightly lower everywhere except fourth grade math, where it was slightly higher. And actually as students get older, it’s worse. It’s worse for the eighth graders than it is for the fourth graders.

If you look at the fourth grade scores, 41% of our nation’s fourth graders are proficient in math and 35% are proficient in reading. But if you look at the eighth grade scores, it’s about 33-34% proficient in both reading and math, so only about a third of our eighth graders are proficient in reading and math.

Michael Chartier: So. the more time they spend in the system…

Jason Bedrick: Well, it means that they’re kind of falling behind. They’re not keeping up to where they should be, which is a problem, and that doesn’t even include advanced. So, you’ve got basic, proficient, and advanced. You want everybody to be at least at proficient, but they’re just not there. So, certainly this is pointing to a systemic problem. Although, there are those like Neal McCluskey who says maybe it’s not such a problem. Now, this is a contrarian take from Neal, but I think it’s one that’s worth pondering. Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute…

Michael Chartier: Barbecue extraordinaire, by the way.

Jason Bedrick: Yes. He says, “My guess is that the de-emphasis on standardized testing is a big factor, and that may be just fine. The United States has never had a culture geared towards standardized testing or even high academic achievement relative to many other nations, and we’ve done pretty well by embracing creativity and individuality. We have also increasingly seen studies suggesting that higher test scores do not translate well into the kinds of long-term life outcomes we want, including college attendance and employment outcomes.” I think Neal has a point there on that last point, that we’ve seen that a lot of the tests don’t translate into college attendance, employment outcomes, things that we like.

There has been, in recent years—and Jay Greene and Corey DeAngelis and others have been doing great work on this, Mike McShane here at EdChoice as well—pointing out the disconnect between testing outcomes, which are supposed to be a proxy for these other types of outcomes we really care about, and there’s a disconnect. In some studies you find an intervention like school choice or some other policy. It does not produce an increase in test scores, but it is inducing an increase in some of these other outcomes we care about.
Sometimes it’s the reverse. The test scores go up, but there’s no change or even a negative change in these other areas. But often… And this relates to my earlier point… Often we’re talking about tests where you have accountability metrics that are attached, and so what the test scores may be picking up is not an increase in actual learning. What the test scores might be picking up is an increase in test prep activity. And so if that’s actually taking time away from real learning, you might see losses in these other areas, but gains in the test scores.

NAEP, because no school is doing test prep for NAEP… They might be doing test prep for other tests that also helps those students on NAEP, but nobody’s doing test prep for NAEP. There’s no reason to. There’s no incentive.

Michael Chartier: Do incentives matter, really?

Jason Bedrick: Really. So, I’m not sure that Neal is 100% right on the other point. That said, certainly America has embraced creativity and individuality, whereas in some other nations… And people point to China… They do much better when it comes to test scores and they are drilled into doing these tests, but then they don’t produce a culture that is as creative as America, and actually a lot of the creative types end up coming over here. So, maybe as a nation—and Neal’s making this point—we’re better off focusing on creativity and individuality and less on that.

I’m not so sure. I think there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying. I also think that it’s also very important that you have a nation that is proficient when it comes to reading and numeracy. So, these results I think do give us reason to be concerned. We’ve had this stall. We’re spending more and more and more money and the results are not getting any better, so maybe it is time to try something different.

Michael Chartier: Do you think that there’s any bright spot in here? Is there one data point that we can even celebrate? Is there anything in there that you think that, even if the whole majority of this is like, “No, this is dismal,” whatever, anything in there you think that we could be like, “Hey, you know what? We actually did something well over here. We made some progress here. We learned something over here.”

Jason Bedrick: You know, if you look at Mississippi and Washington, D.C., both increased, and I would encourage… There was a recent podcast on The Learning Curve, which is by the way, a plug for The Learning Curve, my favorite new education podcast. Of course, second to EdChoice Chats, but my favorite new education podcast. It’s on Ricochet and it’s by Bob Bowdon from Choice Media and Cara Candal, who’s at ExcelinEd. On a recent episode they talked about the NAEP results. There were a few points that they made that I thought were interesting.

First of all, Mississippi really improved their scores. They were, as far as states go, by far the best in terms of improvement. Not their overall score, but in terms of their improvement, and they have tried to raise the bar with regard to standards in recent years, and that may be a part of it. They pointed to D.C.

Well, people are saying, “Oh, maybe it’s these various reforms that they implemented in D.C.,” and that may be the case. D.C. is also a relatively high choice environment. They’ve got a voucher program. They also have a rather robust charter sector. But they’ve also had a lot of gentrification, and we know that there is a very high correlation between test score, performance, socioeconomic status, and so if you do no education intervention whatsoever in an area but you change what type of students are coming in, then that’s obviously going to have some effects, and so we have to dive deeper into the data to see what’s actually going on in Washington, D.C.

Lindsey Burke from Heritage also pointed out that if you look at the scores for students with disabilities and you look at their progress from 2009 to 2019, a majority of the states… It’s most of the states, by the way… The vast majority of the states saw decreases. Matt Ladner called it an Agincourt-level disaster, you know, from Henry the 5th in Shakespeare, so he says this is just absolutely disastrous.
But there were a few bright spots, including Arizona, California, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi. He went through a number of these states. Most of the states that saw improvements actually have school choice programs for students with special needs, particularly the ESA program in Arizona, the ESA program in Florida, another ESA program in Mississippi, so three of the six states that have ESA programs for students. Actually four. I missed Tennessee. So, four of the six states that have ESA programs for students with special needs saw gains.

Now, don’t want to engage in what’s known as “misNAEPery.” We can’t attribute that to school choice, and I should also note as a caveat that a number of states that have school choice programs for students with special needs saw declines. That should be noted, and the Mississippi, is it attributed to the school choice program or the overall improvement, other things they did to improve it?

It’s an interesting piece of information. I think it’s worth exploring further, especially because the idea… Even if you have a small number of students who are actually participating in a school choice program, the very fact that the program exists and gives an exit option for parents that are in a system that might not be well serving their child means that the system is actually much more likely to take their concern seriously. If those parents have nowhere else to go and all they can do is sue the school district because they’re not living up to their obligations under IDEA, you know the other child has an individualized education plan, an IEP, and it’s not being met, well, if they’re well off and they can afford an attorney, they can sue. And after a while, maybe the district is going to come up with a better plan or fulfill its obligations. But if you’re lower income maybe you can’t afford to do that.

But if you have the exit option, if you can take your money, take the money that the state has allocated for your child and bring it somewhere else, that school is much more likely to take your concern seriously and try to meet your needs to keep you and your money in the system.

So, there’s reason to believe in these states that have robust educational choice programs, especially for students with special needs, that it affects not only those students that exercise choice, but the system itself, because everybody is empowered to choose. So again, I’m not making the claim here that the NAEP scores in those states are because of school choice programs. As a researcher we just simply cannot make such a claim from the data we have in front of us, but the data is interesting and maybe even suggestive and worth exploring further.

Michael Chartier: Thank you, Jason, for giving us a run-through of the recent NAEP scores. We all certainly learned a lot and probably are saddened by this, so thanks for bringing that bright spot in our podcast here.
I think Lauren and I are going to chat a little bit about our Schooling in America survey. Every year we ask a variety of questions about education over time. We usually like to focus on something on one of them, say rural America or something like that, urban America or rural America, something like that.

This year we decided to oversample teachers. We wanted to get information about what teachers think about education and a whole variety of things, and I actually, guys, encourage you to go to our website www.edchoice.org. Go to our “Research” tab and look at our 2019 Schooling in America survey to see all of this information for yourself. We’ve got a cool little SlideShare there, that it gives you in 37 slides some of the top line results. But you guys should dive into the whole survey there, especially if you guys are polling junkies. We want to do highlight a few of the things that we think here are most interesting. So, Lauren, would you want to give us just a quick synopsis of the first thing you found most interesting in this?

Lauren Hodge: Well, I think it’s fitting, being that Jason’s here and talking about the nation’s report card, that we actually look at the views on testing, which is one of the things that we looked at in this most recent poll with Schooling in America. What’s interesting is that the general population, 36% said that their testing was too high. The current school parents said testing was too high at 35%.
But those who were teachers, who are current public school teachers, at 62% said the amount of testing is too high. And I think that that fits in as we look at NAEP, as we look at so many other testing reforms in accountability, which is something that we here at EdChoice are talking about all the time. What does it mean to continue to test kids and at what cost? I think it’s interesting when you have such a jump here from teachers who are in the classroom working with these kids that are saying, “No, this is too much,” that we’re not getting to actually… The kids perhaps, or perhaps there’s other reasons why that may not be an effective measure.

So, I think it’s an interesting data point for us to jump off… And not certainly in this podcast. It’s a podcast of its own… about accountability and what it is and how do we look at it? But it’s one of those really interesting kind of data points to jump into. I love this year’s survey because we are looking at what teachers have to say, and it’s an interesting set. I’ve seen a couple of our Schooling in America polls now in my short time here at EdChoice. But it’s interesting when we look at things.

One of the things we looked at, Michael, was the public school teachers trust in K-12 education stakeholders. And I know that this was one that we kind of circulated out throughout the office, and the result being that a lot of public school teachers don’t have trust in students’ parents. I think the public school teachers, when they looked at students’ parents, it was something like 37% that put trust in that versus the principal at 59%, and I think that that’s a really interesting point.

It gets to something that we at EdChoice talk about the heart of the choice movement. Do we think parents are capable? Do we think parents matter and do we trust parents? I think that this is something I’ve heard refrained throughout. Parents know their kids, and we certainly believe that here. We certainly see that here. But I’m curious, you’ve been in this a little bit longer than I have. Does that strike you? Is it surprising or is it just me, being that I’m new?

Michael Chartier: I think that is shocking in many ways. I mean, I think the rhetorical question you pose, that’s a resounding no. I mean, when barely a third of the teachers that were surveyed actually trust parents to know what’s best for their kids, that’s a resounding no in my estimation that they don’t see that, and I think that’s somewhat shocking. Yeah, I mean, obviously in polling you always wish you could ask the follow-up questions of, “Why do you see that? What’s your views on that?”

But I’d be curious to know. I think there’s an interesting tension there of it’s very interesting, parents taking their kids into school, and the teacher looking if they drop their kids off on the drop off line or walk them into the building, those teachers looking out basically thinking that those parents weren’t the most capable people for determining that. I’m not sure what to make of that, and honestly I’m a little bit speechless about that. But it does raise some interesting dynamics at play there, especially when it comes to accountability and then parental involvement, parental satisfaction. If you don’t think that parents are able to make these determinations, why do you care about what parents think and how happy they are and what they want for their kids and all those sorts of things? But it definitely raises some interesting questions.

Lauren Hodge: I’m also very intrigued by the percentage of faith they put into school principals. Those teachers that are with the students for many hours during the day, I value what teachers have to say, especially as they see kids and they know them very well. Perhaps schooling… And schooling certainly has changed since my time, but as I look at that, how much time is the principal spending with that kid? That was just an intriguing data point to me, that that level of trust is so high. And to your point, we’d love to ask why, right?

Michael Chartier: Why, yep.

Lauren Hodge: But that was one of those big key takeaways for me. The other really interesting thing I thought in regards to teachers is the support for interdistrict public school busing. As you all likely know that are listening in, but this is essentially where busing is provided to other districts around for children attending the public school, and you have a higher teacher opposition to this. I think our poll says something like 65%, and when we look at that compared to the millennials and Gen Z that we also sampled, it looks like that opinion may be changing over time, where we have millennials and Gen Z’s kind of saying no, that this might be okay to do interdistricting.

We’ve known through the data points throughout the years that choice is much more in demand amongst the younger generation. We choose our phones, we choose our cell phone plans. We choose Amazon two-day shipping, one day shipping, right? And so as we look at that, I thought that was kind of an interesting data point there about where the teacher support was for that interdistricting public school. It was one of those things that stood out to me, and I didn’t know if you had any thoughts about that.

Michael Chartier: No, I mean, I think that it’s somewhat surprising. We always talk about this is the lowest hanging fruit of school. Oh, I guess the lowest hanging fruit is probably moving, but the lowest hanging fruit of public policy choice is interdistrict public school transfer, and to see the parents and the younger people want that, but teachers might not be as on board with that is somewhat surprising and shocking, considering that everyone’s staying within that public school system that everyone talks about as being so important to society.

Lauren Hodge: Well, and to the question that we always love to ask, why?

Michael Chartier: Why?

Lauren Hodge: What is it about changing those district lines? Is there an administrative factor that needs to be considered? Is there a way that that barrier could be eliminated as we look forward towards children? But as we also know from the Schooling in America survey, so much of your housing value, it determines what your public school district’s going to be. You’re looking at the public schools, you want to know where can I buy? What’s that real estate value, and those types of things? So it’s an interesting data point, but I think the other big takeaway from me is that teachers weren’t terribly happy in their profession.

Michael Chartier: No, absolutely not. Their Net Promoter Scores are in the tank.

Lauren Hodge: And for those that aren’t familiar with Net Promoter Scores, you were the one that taught them to me.

Michael Chartier: Yeah, so basically what you do is you ask people how likely are you to recommend me as a service provider to your family and friends? The person would come back and rank those people on a scale from 1 to 10, essentially 9s and 10s being Net Promoters. So, if you were to say, “Hey, I’d recommend this podcast on a 9 or a 10,” those folks were Net Promoters. And I actually… I say it off the top of my head, I forget the number, but I think it’s down to anybody under a 7… I think a 7 and below or maybe a 6 and below are actually Net Detractors. Even though that you’re above 50% there, you’re actually a detractor. So, you take the people that give you those 9s and the 10s, and you subtract that lower number from them, and that’s your Net Promoter Score. So, there’s a little bit in the middle there where it’s sort of neutral, but unless you’re doing that 9 or 10 you’re not rocking it. And their Net Promoter Score, it was in the negative. So, not high, just in the negatives.

Lauren Hodge: Right.

Michael Chartier: The question we were asking was based on other public service professions, so not just teachers, but folks like firefighters, police, the military, those kinds of things. So, it was in the public service profession, but they would definitely not recommend that profession to their family and friends and other people coming up behind them.

Lauren Hodge: And I think it matters in so many ways. As I read that, I was surprised because I, as we all do, have known phenomenal teachers, have been blessed with phenomenal teachers in our lives who truly have had that amazing impact, and we can all name them here at EdChoice. We love teachers. To go to school every day, to work at a job every day, I think everybody here has probably had a position at one point in time or another that made you miserable. How did that manifest itself and what does that look like? It’s one of those things that it made me really sad, and I can be empathetic and I’d love to know once again, why? What is it about the profession that we can do to make those things better, to make it so that you’d want to be in that classroom?

And if I had to hazard a guess, I don’t think that they… It’s not that they don’t want to be in the classroom. I’ve met teachers time and time again and they are phenomenal and they’re in it for the kids, but what are the barriers? What are the weights there? Is it the testing? Is it things that are coming into the school? What is it that’s making it with such a negative Net Promoter Score? Because as we look around the nation, we know by the number of strikes and walkouts, that teachers are unsatisfied, and we need to get that moving in the right direction.

Michael Chartier: Absolutely, and it’s interesting to see here based on some of the data, that teachers blame state government as the biggest sort of opposition to the things that they believe that they need to do, and they’re one of the biggest drivers of the walkout, is state government. I found that particularly interesting when it’s the school districts themselves that are sort of their employers and whatnot. They’re finding another branch of government to blame for when the people most closest to them, they don’t blame as much for their walkout in the Red for Ed protest. I found that most interesting in this. Have any thoughts on that?

Lauren Hodge: I mean, I can say that this is not the cheeriest podcast I’ve been a part of.

Michael Chariter: No.

Lauren Hodge: We’ve have some sad outlooks, but as ever, Susie Sunshine—

Michael Chartier: Susie Sunshine.

Lauren Hodge: Right. We’re going to choose the positive path, and we know that choice remains high.

Michael Chartier: Yes.

Lauren Hodge: And I think that this is now… This is the seventh generation of this study that we have done, and the support for choice is… It’s there. The demand for choice is there, and I think that regardless of what NAEP scores say, regardless of what teachers say, I think that’s what keeps us at EdChoice and others in this movement engaged and fired up and ready to fight that battle even when the news is somewhat difficult to hear.

Michael Chartier: Yep, yep. Thank you for bringing that up, that you found the bright spot in all of this, that yes, absolutely, we’re at the highest levels. When you educate people on what ESAs are, what vouchers are, how they work at, how tax credits work, you have the highest level of support that we’ve ever seen in doing our polls. And that’s certainly the most bright spot in all of this, that there is something… There is an area for us to work in there. If we can continue to educate folks, they will come on board and believe in the things that we believe and help advocate for their own children.

Lauren Hodge: And so we continue on, and that’s the EdChoice way, right?

Michael Chartier: Absolutely. All right, well, thank you everybody for listening to our podcast. We appreciate you listening in. If you have any new ideas for things you’d like to talk to us about… We’ve already had one suggestion and we appreciate that. We love those suggestions, so please email us at media@edchoice.org. Again, that’s media@edchoice.org.

Subscribe to this podcast on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. Again, that’s SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice. Again, that’s @edchoice, and sign up for our emails on our website at www.edchoice.org. And to find our Schooling in America survey, go to our research tab and you can download the whole thing and dive through the numbers yourself. So, thank you very much for listening to this November podcast. We hope everybody has a wonderful Thanksgiving, and we will see you all back here in December.