Column

As Republicans stress political fiction over facts, students’ math and reading scores fall

GOP remedy for the decline? More of the policies that may have prompted it 

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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Last week, the National Center for Education Statistics released the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for mathematics and reading in the fourth and eighth grades. The top-level findings of the report, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that academic achievement across the United States in these critical subjects has stalled. Gaps between the highest- and lowest-achieving students in most states have widened, and disparities among racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups have grown.

The report set off a heated debate about the reasons for this decline. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos weighed in, taking the opportunity to double down on old talking points, instead of offering potential new paths for moving forward.

“It’s way past time we dispense with the idea that more money for school buildings buys better achievement for school students,” DeVos said in a speech responding to the NAEP scores. She wasn’t the only conservative to peddle shopworn reform wares. Writing in Education Next, Paul Peterson of the right-leaning think tank The Hoover Institution stated, “The shift corresponds almost exactly with the abandonment of effective enforcement of the accountability system put into place by No Child Left Behind.” Conservative analysts can’t get enough of preaching accountability — to black and brown school districts.

But there are a few things that affect educational outcomes that GOP leaders fail to mention — such as the example their party sets for impressionable young minds when its members roundly deny climate change. In the school of life, students lose when they hear elected officials say there is no consensus on the science of climate change, a statement that negatively influences how impressionable students view science, scientists and facts in general. By pulling out of the Paris climate accord and refusing to accept climate change, the Trump administration embodies the opposite of environmental science, globalism and the ideas educators teach in school. Instead of bemoaning funding for education, why don’t Republicans own up to fact that their anti-intellectual, post-truth agenda doesn’t support academic rigor? As philosopher John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

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In addition, conservatives’ small-government, anti-spending stance has throttled the federal government’s ability to address historic discrimination. Many Republicans say that race (and racism) is no longer an excuse for outcomes, a belief that is reflected in their efforts to dismantle affirmative action and voting rights. These are just more ways in which Republicans deny basic facts, the logic of cause and effect.

Conservative congressmen and women have historically resisted supposedly progressive policies for fear of wasteful government spending. Critics of universal pre-K have refused to believe data early childhood education programs support higher employment, better health, and the development of essential social-emotional skills. These benefits transcend generations: Parents who attended high-quality ECE have children with fewer school suspensions, among other positive outcomes. Republicans have cut contributions to federal programs such as Head Start.

But here’s the rub: Though Republicans want to cut spending on perceived progressive programs, they turn a blind eye when it comes to spending on Republican causes. See, for example, the farm bailout. Deficits under Trump have soared beyond a trillion dollars. So, too, in education. But it’s where the money is going that DeVos and other conservatives care about — not the mere fact that it’s going at all. Conservatives seem perfectly happy with a school financing structure that generates $23 billion more in funding for predominantly white school districts nationwide than for districts that serve mostly students of color. When spending is on black and brown children, conservatives raise a fuss. When it’s happening in wealthy white districts, no one bats an eye.

Cuts to accessible early childhood education make it all the more difficult for low-income families — and especially low-income black and brown families — to get services their wealthier counterparts take for granted. And the cuts reveal the racism the GOP won’t talk about when it comes to the nation’s academic performance.

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When you have conservative stalwarts such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich disparaging as a lie and propaganda the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a major series memorializing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, you can understand why we have educational stagnation and racial disparities. When our political leaders don’t believe that our education policies must help reverse the legacy of centuries of exploitation of black folk, then it’s not surprising that so many children of color lack access to high-quality, state-funded preschool programs.

A new study across 26 states by the education advocacy nonprofit Education Trust found that only 1 percent of Latino 3- and 4-year-olds and 4 percent of black 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in high-quality state preschool programs. Access is particularly bad for 3-year-olds; four states provided no programs for them at all. Latino children were underrepresented in 11 of these states, meaning population estimates suggest that a significant percentage of children are not enrolled at all. The same was true for black children in three states.

Particularly damning, the report showed that children of color did not have robust access to high-quality early childhood education in these 26 states.

Politicians show what value they place on black and Latino Americans through the policies they promote and oppose. When you have legislators who deny climate change and racial disparities in school financing, don’t expect them to fund the kind of schools that will advance basic truths, let alone academic achievement.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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