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DeVos Bemoans ‘Devastating’ NAEP Scores, Pushes for ‘Education Freedom’

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 10/30/2019 Lauren Camera
Betsy DeVos wearing glasses: US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during the Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, July 15, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images) © (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images) US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during the Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, July 15, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Wednesday slammed the K-12 education establishment for allowing students to fall behind in math and reading without fully taking advantage of the types of "education freedom" at the heart of the Trump administration's agenda.

"The numbers are reason for deep concern," she said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "This country has a student achievement crisis."

Earlier in the day, results from the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress, also called NAEP or the Nation's Report Card, showed that math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders in the United States dropped since 2017, with a particularly acute decrease in reading achievement has government researchers concerned.

"This is not new," DeVos said of the lackluster scores. "Today's Report Card is essentially the same as the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. In fact, student achievement hasn't changed much since 1992. Flat lines. Barely any change."

In her 10-minute speech, DeVos placed the blame squarely on the backs of education policy experts and those among the so-called education establishment, like teachers unions and advocacy organizations, for failing to sound the alarm and embrace more radical changes, like her school choice agenda, to move the needle.

"Blame the experts who assure us each year that American education is doing OK," Devos said, "that our schools are good enough. 'If you just look at these numbers hard enough,' they say, 'you'll see some improvement in some subject for some students somewhere.'"

"That might be true," she continued, "but they've missed the forest for the trees."

She said it didn't matter that the drop or plateau in NAEP scores came after decades of improvement or that, when looking at the break-out of student subgroups, the scores over a historical trend line show the narrowing of achievement gaps.

"Too many American students who were already low-achieving are worse off today," she said. "While our best-performing students have plateaued, those near the bottom – our most vulnerable – have fallen even further behind."

Compared to 2017, the 2019 NAEP scores of lower performing students declined in three of the four grade-subject combinations, and those drops are what accounted for the overall drop in average scores.

DeVos also bemoaned the increase in funding for K-12 education, which she said has done nothing to benefit student improvement.

"It's way past time we dispense with the idea that more money for school buildings buys better achievement for school students," she said. "No amount of spending can bring about good results from bad policy."

Instead DeVos instructed people to look at states like Florida, where lawmakers have introduced an array of school choice programs that allow parents options other than their residentially zoned traditional public schools.

"Doing better began with introducing education freedom," she said. "Public charter schools, tax-credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts, vouchers – students in Florida have more mechanisms for education freedom than anywhere else in the country."

The spotlight on Florida's various school choice policies comes as DeVos continues to push Congress to back the so-called Education Freedom Scholarship, a $5 billion federal tax credit scholarship that would help families cover the cost of a private or public K-12 school of their choice, or pay for online classes, tutoring and after-school programs, among other things. The proposal would provide a tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute part of their taxable income to an organization that provides scholarships, mostly set aside for low-income students.

During the speech, the secretary also challenged states to be more creative in taking full advantage of the federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Success Act, which gives back to states wide new latitude around issues of testing and spending.

The secretary was on the receiving end of swift blowback for many of her assertions.

"There is something to be said about believing in children and taking results like these in their full context," Tonya Matthews, vice chairwoman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, said at the podium during the event directly after DeVos spoke. "Context matters."

Students in the U.S. made significant progress in math and reading achievement on NAEP from 1990 until 2015, when the first major dip in achievement scores occurred. During that time span, fourth grade students improved 27 points in math and 6 points in reading, and eighth grade students improved by 19 points in math and 5 points in reading.

"Silver bullets are for werewolves," Matthews added.

Heads of big city school districts, pushed back against the secretary's narrative, too, pointing to significant gains in places like Washington, D.C., the only place where students posted gains in three out of the four grade-subject combinations.

"We have made significant progress over the years in both reading and math and we have dramatically narrowed the gap with the nation," Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization that represents the heads of big city school districts. "We still have more to do, but the era of poor performance in our nation's urban public-school systems has ended."

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