How should companies and non-profits respond to the recent, very disappointing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results? First, some context: Average reading scores for 4th and 8th graders in the U.S. dropped from 2017 and are flat since 2009. Reading scores also dropped for low, middle- and high-performing students at both grade levels. Math scores increased by one point for 4th graders, but decreased one point for 8th-graders, with overall trends remaining flat for the past decade.
The disappointing national picture held true at the state level, with reading scores dropping for 4th graders in 17 states and 8th graders in 31 states. Mississippi and Washington, D.C. are the outliers with widespread gains, along with a number of individual districts like Shelby County (TN), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), Denver (CO), Miami-Dade (FL), and San Diego (CA) which increased reading and math scores across both 4th and 8th grades. However, their overall performance is still quite low, so there is still much work to do. The results also show that nationally, there has been relatively no change in the score gap between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students in math at the 4th or 8th grade levels.
A range of explanations have been floated for these results, from impacts of state-level recessions and/or teacher strikes, a lack of high quality and aligned instructional materials, the adoption/rejection of the Common Core standards and assessments, ESSA implementation, NAEP irrelevancy, or a loss of focus on literacy instruction. Secretary DeVos called the results “devastating” and evidence of the need for robust school choice. We may never really know what the underlying causes are, but it is likely a combination of the factors – no one answer accounts for it all.
Policymakers will respond, one way or another. About twenty years ago, these kinds of poor test-based outcomes were a major contributing factor to the run-up to NCLB. That kind of heavy-handed policy response is a long way off, but the impetus to “do something” is there, and the pressure will only increase. Now is the time to really understand what is working in schools, districts, and states. Highlighting what is working, the conditions that are leading to success, and the replicability of the results is sorely needed right now and could play a pivotal role in shaping the narrative about happens in response.
So, what can companies and non-profit organizations do in response? Double-down on conducting research into which programs and services are producing results – and under what specific conditions; ensure tight product-market fit; be clear about the ideal customer for the product or service – not every product or service is right for every school or district. Just like schools and districts need to be discerning about the right solutions for their problems, so do companies and non-profits; find experts to support and advise – the education market is too vast and complicated to try to answer every question internally. And last but perhaps most important: value the “dual bottom line” – revenue success must be married to academic outcomes. One has to support the other or long-term success will be impossible.
The right solutions for the right people at the right time are more important than ever. Our collective lack of academic success is not for a lack of hard work and dedication, but a lack of problem-solution alignment and access to the right tools. More than ever, we need to be sure there is a better match between what is needed and what is provided.