BLOG: Falling Reading and Math Scores Reveal Teacher Union Hypocrisy

by Angela Morabito

New Nation’s Report Card test scores show that America’s 13-year-olds are scoring significantly worse in reading and math than 13 year-olds did pre-pandemic. These scores are only the latest installment in a story of academic decline that has been in motion since 2012.

The widening achievement gap is cause for concern for everyone but should have elicited an especially swift and thorough response from people who have built their careers calling for educational equity. Sec. Cardona and teacher union boss Randi Weingarten both routinely decry the achievement gap, but they have thus far failed to acknowledge publicly that minority students’ test scores have fallen the most—much less suggest a plan for remediating these students. Sec. Cardona’s proposed solution to falling test scores is to throw more money at a failing system. And the system fails harder in some places than in others: It should surprise no one that many of these students hit hardest live in blue cities where unions have a stranglehold on public school education. 

For the administration and its teacher union allies to address these test scores would be akin to admitting that their methods have failed. The declines since 2012 – seven points in reading and 14 in math – all started long before COVID. The pandemic-era lockdowns certainly didn’t help matters, but we would still be facing a dramatic decline in student achievement even if COVID had never happened.  In fact, the post-pandemic drop in scores for both subjects amounts to only slightly over half of the decline in scores since 2012.

Those who lost the most between 2020 and 2023 were those who could least afford it: The students in the lowest decile of reading performance scored lower than such students did in 1971, the first year the test was administered.

The new math scores show a widening racial achievement gap: Black students scored 13 points lower in 2023 than they did in 2020. Math scores for American Indian/Alaska Native students dropped by 20 points; Hispanic students saw a 10-point drop. The scores for white students dropped by six points over the same time period; a negative result, but one that pales in comparison to those from other demographic groups.

The sad truth is that the progressive vision for education has nothing to do with raising student performance metrics and everything to do with lowering the bar for achievement. The nation’s two largest teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT, have pushed policies that minimize or eliminate standardized testing as a measure of teacher performance. If the test scores were any good, they might be singing a different tune.

Contrary to what the teacher unions will tell you, schools have plenty of resources to fix pandemic learning loss. Congress allocated roughly $190 billion for elementary and secondary school COVID relief, much of which has gone unspent: As of the last reporting period, which ended on April 30, no state had spent more than 70% of its allocation. The money is there to provide resources, including tutoring, learning tools, educational technology, and more, that would help address learning loss. What’s missing is the political will to fix the problem.

Still, COVID didn’t start America’s educational decline. Erasing the effects of the pandemic will not turn the tide of educational decline that began more than a decade ago. Education needs systemic fixes to solve systemic problems. The Department of Education, at the top of this system, has overseen decades of mediocrity and done little, if anything, to improve academic achievement. DFI’s Co-Founders Bob Eitel and Jim Blew have laid out a step-by-step plan for shutting down the Department while ensuring that students’ civil rights remain protected at the highest levels of government. With or without the Department at the helm, there are major changes our education system needs in order to help students thrive.

First, no student should be trapped in a government-assigned school that doesn’t serve them simply because his or her parents cannot afford a way out. School choice programs, like the ones already propelling student success in Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere, should be embraced nationwide. 2023 has already been a banner year for school choice in the states, but there is still more work to be done.

School districts must start taking an active interest in teachers’ job performance, rather than passively treating all teachers the same. There is a wide gulf between a teacher who needs and deserves more support, training, and resources, versus a teacher who is chronically ineffective. Yet, teacher unions and their political allies fight hard to ensure those in the latter category are never discovered, let alone held accountable.

Additionally, radical progressive politics should no longer be allowed to displace the educational fundamentals in America’s classrooms. Teachers should not be devoting precious classroom time to gender identity politics when their students can hardly read and do math. When students are learning LGBTQ before they learn A-B-C, the priority is not on true education.  

Teacher unions have pushed the exact opposite of these common-sense policies: They continue to fight against school choice while shoving progressive politics into curricula and enacting “restorative justice” policies that make it all but impossible for teachers to maintain control of their classrooms. The result is a school culture where discipline has gone out the window and the environment is no longer conducive to learning. The supposed warriors for the little guy not only turn a blind eye to failure, they prop up the very practices that perpetuate it.