Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow and Lindsay Rosenthal is a special assistant at the Center for American Progress.
You might think that the nation's students are drowning in school work. Images of overworked students often grace the cover of parenting magazines, while well-heeled teenagers in Scarsdale, N.Y. and Beverly Hills, Calif. often complain that they have to work the hours of a Silicon Valley CEO to finish their science projects. But when we recently examined a federal survey of students in public schools around the country, we found just the opposite. In fact, many students were simply not being challenged by their schools.
Our analysis of a national database found, for instance, that 37 percent of fourth graders say that their math work is often or almost too easy. More than a third of high school seniors report that they hardly ever write about what they read in class. And in an increasingly competitive global economy where the mastery of science is crucial, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they aren't being taught engineering and technology.
These findings come at a crucial moment for the education reform movement, and researchers increasingly believe that surveys of students can provide important insights into the process of schooling. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released findings from their Measures of Effective Teaching Project last year, they found that student feedback was a far better predictor of a teacher's performance than more traditional indicators of success like whether a teacher had a master's degree or not.
In many ways, the practice of using student surveys to learn about American classrooms is not new. The practice dates back to at least 1896 when students in Sioux City, Iowa were asked to provide input on their teachers. But the student surveys of today are far richer and more sophisticated, capturing a far more robust view of the classroom experience. In fact, next-generation student questionnaires are so detailed that it can take a student more than 30 minutes just to fill one out.
Given this growing body of research, we decided to examine one of the richest sources of national student survey data, the background questionnaire of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as the Nation's Report Card, the assessments are administered every two years by the federal government, and we looked at the most recent student questionnaire, which includes state-by-state information on a student's academic experiences.
And even for jaundiced observers, the results of our analysis were surprising. We found, for instance, that a significant percentage of students across grade levels say that they don't clearly understand what their teacher is saying. Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or at home.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also less likely to have the same access to robust learning opportunities as their more advantaged peers. Consider, for example, that 74 percent of higher-income fourth-grade students report that they often or always understand what their science teacher is saying, compared with just 56 percent of lower-income fourth-grade students.
For their part, educators have been taking action, using the new research on student surveys to improve schools, and some districts like Memphis, Tenn. already count student surveys for as much as 5 percent of a teacher's overall evaluation. Another 11 states—along with some districts—have been working hard to figure out the best way to include the student voice in the evaluations of individual teachers. But what's clear is that far more needs to be done to better understand the role of student surveys, and a number of key questions remain unanswered. How can the results be used to improve teacher practice? If a student knows that her survey will be included in a high-stakes evaluation of her teacher, will her or she answer the questions differently?
At the same time, the research also suggests that policymakers must continue to push for higher, more challenging standards. Many states have been trying to ratchet up the rigor of their education systems by adopting new academic standards known as the Common Core. This is clearly a step in the right direction.
Still, far more attention needs to be given to implementation so that these higher expectations actually penetrate into schools and classrooms. One recent study found that 73 percent of teachers believe they're ready for the new standards. That figure should concern many since it suggests that teachers are overly confident about their ability to deliver.
Schools are notoriously hard to change, to be sure, and for decades, our education system has remained resistant to real reform. But there's good reason to hope, and when states and districts focus on creating lasting change, they can show results. Over the past 30 years, for instance, the math scores of African-American elementary school students have jumped by roughly three grade levels.
We need to do much more, though, and in the end, it seems that some of the answers about how to improve our nation's school system might reside with those who will benefit the most—the students themselves.
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