Why 17-year-olds' scores have stalled since the '70s
Robert J. Samuelson, the Newsweek and Washington Post economics columnist, edited my first news story. We were both college sophomores. I was trying out for the student newspaper. He was already a seasoned reporter and editor on the staff. He tossed the typewritten sheets back to me and said to try again.
I did as I was told. I learned much from him during that first encounter, as I have continued to do during our long friendship. He enlightens me even on topics in my specialty, such as his latest column in the Post, “The failure of school reform.”
He starts with a stark summary of how little progress American teenagers have made in the last four decades of aggressive efforts to improve public schools. I use this statistic often, but Samuelson emphasizes the point nicely by quoting the raw numbers:
“In 1971, the initial year for the [National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term] reading test, the average score for 17-year-olds was 285; in 2008, the average score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when 17-year-olds averaged 304; in 2008, the average was 306.”
He recounts explanations for this that fail to withstand scrutiny. The problem can’t be high student-teacher ratios because those have dropped. It can’t be minimal preschool preparation because a larger portion of children are getting that early start. Teacher pay has also improved to the point where two people married to each other and each making the average teacher salary of $53,230 “would belong in the richest 20 percent of households,” Samuelson says.
Instead, he concludes, “the larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.”
Samuelson is on shakier ground here since we have no useful measure of the level of student motivation in the early 1970s compared to now. He suggests that the significant decline in high school dropout rates since the 1940s and 1950s means more disaffected students are staying in school. But since the early 1970s, when we began to measure the lack of 17-year-old academic progress, that portion of drop-outs has not changed, and the latest analysis suggests it has gone up a bit.
Still, it is hard to deny his view that in the last 40 years as "adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded." The old my-way-or-the-highway ethos of school discipline that ruled even nice suburban high schools like mine in the 1960s is long gone. Even the schools with the toughest discipline policies these days are run by educators who do everything they can to keep students in school.
There isn't enough data to say for sure, but Samuelson may be right that our high schools have a higher portion of bored, restless, unmotivated students than they did before. That could explain, at least in part, why their average reading and math scores numbers have not improved. I think Samuelson could also refer to his frequent columns on how immigration has inflated our poverty rates, and suggest that same influx may be depressing average test scores.
Samuelson says policymakers should reconsider before they blame teachers for not doing a better job. Against the realities of low student motivation, Samuelson says, “school ‘reform’ rhetoric is blissfully evasive.” One of the most recent examples of overblown rhetoric, he says, is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for “a great teacher” in every classroom.
Duncan is obviously exaggerating what is possible. But I don’t think it is so wild to hope for more great teachers than we have now. Samuelson acknowledged to me that skilled teachers are able to motivate unmotivated students. If only we were working harder to show our new teachers how to do that.
The issue Samuelson raises is at the center of our many discussions on this blog about how to improve schools. Will making the teachers better and giving them more support to motivate students do the trick? Or should we focus on improving the students’ attitudes and habits before they ever get to school, by giving their families more support?
Something has to be done. Samuelson’s recapitulation of the relevant numbers shows how difficult that job is. "If we don't recognize that motivation is a problem," he told me, "we won't address it."
| September 7, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: 17 year old test scores unimproved since 1970s, NAEP scores, columnist Robert J. Samuelson says the problem unaddressed problem is student motivation, good teachers can produced more motivated students, more motivated students make teachers more effecdtive
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