NAEP and the Stampede of Pachyderms Shaping Education Policy Today

Good morning, CharterFolk,

Last weekend’s post featured a breath of fresh air.

An article from a progressive publication recognizing the value of charter schools.

This week we saw another one.

Both candidates for governor in New York saying during Tuesday’s debate that they support lifting the cap on charter schools.

Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul offered a one-word answer.


Fresh air.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

NAEP and the Stampede of Pachyderms Shaping Education Policy Today

The latest NAEP results have me thinking of Jonathan Haidt and his elephant and the rider concept, which he advanced in this book.

The elephant represents intuition, the rider cognitive reasoning.

Most of us believe that we are driven by our rider when in fact we’re driven by our elephant.  Once our intuition has taken us where it wants to go, our rider finds rationale for explaining why we went there.

And usually when we get in an argument with someone else, we approach it like the other person is driven by a rider, is open to evidence and some kind of rational argument, when in reality the other person is driven by an elephant that couldn’t care less about evidence and rationale.

Just like we ourselves are driven by our own elephants and make ourselves immune to cognitive reasoning coming from others.

When it’s elephant vs rider, the elephant almost always wins.

Even when it’s wrong.

As a nation, as far as measuring academic progress and effectiveness goes, we have made a fateful decision to side with the elephants.

To side with uninformed, or barely informed, intuition.

A confluence of factors brought that about. 

The far left, motivated by forces protecting the education status quo, wanted all testing eliminated so as to get rid of evidence related to the performance of public schools.

The far right, driving an anti-federal narrative, wanted testing gone too.  

It’s left us with a program of evidence-gathering – annual administrations in grades 3-8 and 11 –that is so incomplete that its value is greatly diminished.

(We’re going to get evidence from high schools once in four years and believe we have any idea what learning is really happening in those schools?)

And we’ve thrown so many other measures into the landscape that the heart of the matter – whether our students are actually learning anything – is only further obscured.

The sole form of evidence-gathering we have been able to keep a commitment to as a country is NAEP.

It wasn’t so long ago that the only NAEP we knew about was the one at the base of our necks.

It simply wasn’t part of the education vernacular.  Many of us ed reformers hardly paid any attention to it.

But then, other student achievement data was erased from the landscape.

So NAEP suddenly became our end-all and be-all.

By design, NAEP is designed to tell a story using a very broad brush.

Only a small number of students in just three grades are tested every two years.

For decades, using those very broad stokes, NAEP painted a positive picture, one of steady overall improvement and at least incremental progress on narrowing achievement gaps.

Then, in 2021, pre-pandemic, NAEP’s broad brush showed that gains were being reversed.

This, in my opinion, was the most important contribution that NAEP has made in the past 30 years.  It revealed a broad societal trend that was not sufficiently recognized or understood yet.

In this year’s cycle, NAEP has gone back to confirming what we already knew: 

That Covid-era learning loss was significant and that historically underserved kids were the ones who suffered most.

But it’s been important to have our intuitions confirmed.  

It has helped to put in long-term perspective the scale of the learning loss that we have experienced, enough to wipe out decades of progress, and it has contributed to a sense of urgency that something has gone fundamentally wrong, and we need to do far more to fix it.

Beyond that, from a rider perspective, from an evidence and rationale perspective, NAEP doesn’t tell us much.

So we see a lot of elephantine positioning.

People explaining NAEP results based upon whatever intuition they’ve brought to the discussion.

Those who believe remote learning was a disaster say NAEP confirms it.

Those who believe reforms are a waste of time say NAEP confirms it.

Those who believe or don’t believe in charter schools say NAEP affirms their thinking.

It can lead to some of the most preposterous assertions.

Like the preening in Los Angeles this week …

… as if the school district did something so different and so greatly more effective than other school districts that the rest of the country has something to learn from it.

CharterFolk, if all we were to learn from NAEP is that the rest of the country should emulate Los Angeles, it would be better that NAEP not exist at all.

Far more likely is the possibility that the massive plummet in learning that NAEP reported for LA Unified during the 2019 cycle …

… was a testing anomaly that overstated things, and now the next administration is correcting for that.

That would leave Los Angeles Unified having an overall degrading in NAEP scores over the past five years that would be only slightly more pronounced than we have seen elsewhere.

Which would align with this elephant’s thinking anyway:  

The trouble with NAEP is that it doesn’t give enough data to the riders to meaningfully test the assertion I have just made.  

So we are left to almost meaningless level of supposition.

The real challenge arises when intuition meets political ideology.

Political ideology puts the rider on the back of not just one elephant, but a herd of them.

The claims become even more unsubstantiated and predictable.

Like red state governors attempting to score political points claiming that NAEP shows that red states that stayed open demonstrated significantly better results than blue states that closed.

This elephant does not doubt that staying in person was better for kids than not, but there is also much more to it than that.

My hunch is that a combination of policy (staying open) and context (smaller units that can execute during a crisis like Catholic schools and smaller rural school districts) will prove to have made the greatest difference.

Maybe NAEP’s broad strokes will tell a nuanced enough story to test that proposition.

But maybe not.

And even if it does, many other questions requiring greater detail will go unposed or inaccurately answered.  

Then we will go on to make policy decisions based upon the faulty conclusions we have drawn.

It unleashes the herd of pachyderms on education policy in our country.

We in charterland have had a new broad stroke applied to the movement’s national canvas:

That students attending urban charter schools suffered as much, if not more, learning loss as students in other urban schools.

This runs counter to many years of prior NAEP results which had previously shown the performance of urban charter schools to be a strength area for the movement.

It leaves charter school-supporting elephants like myself suggesting that urban charter schools experienced the drop because, during Covid, they were unable to offer the intense in-person, high-quality instruction and other supports to students that have proven so effective previously.  But now that charter schools are returning to those same effective practices post-Covid, we should see a faster bounce back.  And because large urban school districts lack agility generally, and because few have a previously established baseline of effective practice to return to, their ability to compensate for unprecedented learning loss in the years ahead will be fundamentally challenged

A conceivable hypothesis.

But, goodness knows, my tusks are as long as any, CharterFolk.

Perhaps two years from now, in very broad strokes, enough evidence will have emerged for riders to draw legitimate conclusions regarding my assertion.

But that’s a heck of a long time to wait.  

And it’s a heck of a broad stroke to be relying on, when what we need is much finer understanding.


Which charter schools did best?

Implementing which practices?

And did those same practices prove as successful in other settings where they were tried?

To point to just the very tip of the iceberg. 

Some parts of public education need more empowered riders than others.

We in charterland are among those who need evidence and rationale the most.

  • We need it because so many decisions related to charter approvals and renewals are political, and impartial evidence about school performance is often our best asset for building a case.
  • We need parents to have the evidence they need to make wise decisions about where to enroll their kids.
  • And as important as anything else, we need better evidence to maintain the base integrity of knowing whether what we are pursuing collectively is on the right track.

Goodness knows, evidence and strong rationale won’t be enough alone to hold back the stampede.

Our only hope will be to nudge the herd over time in a general direction that is more in the interests of kids.

That will require continued focus on the things we obsess on here at CharterFolk – continued growth of greatly more public schools, and the building of collective advocacy strength.

But it’s also going to require deepening our commitment to generating and maintaining the public’s focus on compelling evidence describing what is actually happening in our schools.