I always approach the week that NAEP scores are released with a mix of hope and dread.
On the one hand, the crisis that this gold standard of student achievement has revealed in our states is one of the biggest reasons so many talented people are working with such urgency on reform. Every release of new NAEP results is a chance to renew our commitment to solving this crisis.
On the other hand, what drives our work is a belief that this is a crisis that can be solved—not just in one school or one district but in every state in the nation.
Every year that brings more bad news about the persistence of the problem sows doubts and tests the hope needed for true and lasting change. (You can find MinnCAN’s analysis of Minnesota’s 2011 NAEP results here and RI-CAN’s analysis of Rhode Island’s 2011 NAEP results here.) I have often wondered whether a movement could sustain the combustible mixture of pessimism and optimism over the decades needed to ensure real change. Indeed, we are often advised to tone down our discussion of the problem for fear of creating a sense of hopelessness among current and potential supporters.
Yet Alexis de Tocqueville, a trailblazer in sociology and the great observer of American civic life, found that it was exactly this ability to hold at one time both intensely felt pessimism and optimism that made Americans unique. In his tour of America in the early 19th century, he was struck by how self-critical Americans could be while at the same time maintaining such a strong belief in the potential of their country. This combination of intense pessimism about the present and intense optimism about the future helped drive a uniquely American culture grounded in a robust civic life and a collective commitment to problem solving.
De Tocqueville concluded that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
We are all working on education reform because we believe America’s greatest fault in the 21st century is a public education system that has let down so many kids and because we know that if we come together as citizens we can repair this tear in the fabric of our civic life.
It was that spirit that drove Americans over the course of the 19th century to create powerful movements for racial and social equality, to embark on waves of political reforms and to drive forward unprecedented levels of economic innovation and growth. It’s this same dynamic mixture of pessimism about the current state of American education and optimism about the power of reform that will ultimately lead us to success and help restore the American Dream.