2016 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

Brown Center report introduction


The 2016 edition of the Brown Center Report (BCR) is number five in the third volume and the 15th issue overall. The series began in 2000, making this the fifth consecutive presidential election year in which an issue has been published. As is customary, this year’s BCR contains three studies.

Part one is on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and instruction in math and reading. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data indicate that nonfiction is receiving greater emphasis in both fourth and eighth grade reading instruction, data and geometry are receding in importance in fourth grade math, and course enrollments in eighth grade math are shifting away from advanced courses toward a single, general math course. The CCSS supports all of these trends.

Previous issues of the BCR presented models to classify states by their implementation of CCSS. States that are not followers of CCSS have been reluctant to embrace the changes in curriculum and instruction that are encouraged in those standards. The models also show that CCSS implementation is associated with a change of less than a single NAEP scale score point in both fourth grade reading and eighth grade math. Critics blamed Common Core for disappointing NAEP scores in 2015. The good news for Common Core supporters is that nothing in the analysis supports that charge. The bad news is that there also is no evidence that CCSS has made much of a difference during a six-year period of stagnant NAEP scores.

The second section investigates whether tracking in eighth grade is related to Advanced Placement (AP) outcomes in high school. Tracking, the practice of grouping students into different classes based on ability or prior achievement, is a controversial topic. Critics argue that tracking creates or reinforces social inequities. Middle school is when students first experience tracking, typically in mathematics. In eighth grade, the tracking question currently boils down to whether high achieving students who are ready for a formal algebra course will get one—or whether all students will take the same general math course.

Is middle school tracking related to either AP participation or test scores? State-level tracking data from 2009 and AP data from 2013 are used to tackle the question. States that had a larger percentage of eighth grade students in tracked math classes produced a larger percentage of high-scoring AP students four years later. The heightened AP performance held across racial subgroups—white, black, and Hispanic. There was no relationship between tracking and AP participation. Taken together, these findings suggest the heightened performance was not a result of increased selectivity into AP.

Part three examines school leadership from an international perspective. All around the world, school principals are called on to provide instructional leadership. Data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) are examined to see whether principals’ instructional activities are associated with student achievement. No association was found.

What does instructional leadership look like internationally?  Principals are most likely to influence instruction by developing and setting educational goals for their schools. They also monitor teachers’ implementation of goals but are less likely to give advice to teachers who have questions or problems with their teaching. Giving pedagogical guidance may be considered intrusive in some countries. In other countries, teachers may get advice from colleagues. In three consistently high achieving countries—Finland, Hong Kong, and Japan—principals are especially reluctant to give advice; however, principals in Korea, another perennially high achieving country, are more activist in offering instructional guidance.

Part I: Reading and math in the Common Core era »

Table of contents