Success stories often make for good newspaper articles, and the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta has recently received national attention for its transformative culture of energetic passion and high standards. The highly acclaimed middle school has been particularly successful in boosting achievement for its own students. “Clark sets the bar high and holds his kids accountable,” argued one CBS News reporter.
But unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all public schools across Atlanta. In fact, only about 1 out of every 5 eighth-graders in Atlanta is proficient in math, according to a recent report my colleagues and I released.
In our report, A Look at the Education Crisis: Tests, Standards, and the Future of American Education, we argue that Atlanta and many other urban districts are confronting a public education crisis. Hundreds of thousands of students across the nation are not meeting their learning potential.
High academic standards present one very promising solution to this problem—as effective, high-flying schools like the Ron Clark Academy show—and we also found that districts already committed to standards-based reform have seen significant impact.
For our report, we analyzed data from the latest results of the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). We estimated the number of students reaching proficiency in a given subject among a student population. For instance, if 6 percent of the fourth-graders in Detroit who took the NAEP math exam scored proficient or above, we estimate that only about 230 out of 4,000 fourth-graders in the entire city would have reached proficiency.
Sadly, the resulting numbers are quite sobering. Student performance in math and reading is alarmingly low in many places. In Cleveland, for instance, our estimates indicate that only 200 out of a possible 2,000 eighth-graders are proficient in reading. In West Virginia, only about 600 out of 21,000 eighth-graders are considered advanced in math.
Yet, even in the wake of this crisis, some states and districts have made clear progress through their commitment to higher standards. In Washington, D.C., for instance, nearly 1,000 more fourth-graders are reaching proficiency in math and in reading since 2002. In Boston, roughly 1,000 more Latino fourth- and eighth-graders have become proficient in math over the last decade. These districts are significantly improving student outcomes through raised expectations and higher standards.
The standards movement that’s shown success in these areas first arose from the 1983 seminal report Nation at Risk, where U.S. Department of Education officials warned against a “rising tide of mediocrity” sweeping the nation’s public schools. The report called for strong standards—guidelines that set expectations for what students should know and be able to do at any given grade level.
Over the following few decades, policymakers have followed suit by establishing systems that hold states and schools accountable for student success. Our report suggests that these efforts have yielded positive results. Indeed, the nation needs many more reform-oriented places like the District, Charlotte, or even the Ron Clark Academy.
Some critics have dogged standards-based reform as a cold, rigid, test-and-punish system, but standards ensure high levels of achievement for all students regardless of their color, class or national origin. Standards may not have transformed public schools in the way some have hoped for, but it is not in the nation’s favor to move away from standards and revert to a culture of low expectations. Weak standards come at a crippling cost, and students are footing the bill.
The future of our nation’s young people is at a crossroads. Parents, advocates and policymakers should work together towards ushering a new system that effectively reaches students and moves our nation forward. Standards are not the silver-bullet solution, but they are a strong place to start.
After all, they promote a culture of maximum potential, where every student recognizes their ability to excel academically, regardless of who they are or where they come from.