Are America’s Schools Failing … or Thriving?

(Photo: Laurel L. Ruswwurm)

An article published in the American Journalism Review last week by Paul Farhi argues that despite the popular narrative, America’s schools aren’t doing so badly. He writes:

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention). Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

Farhi goes on to highlight a variety of common journalistic generalizations about education: reformers are better than traditionalists, teachers are ineffective, education is in “crisis.”  Farhi points out that journalists often struggle with both access and time, however other factors are at play.  “The mainstream media has failed to do due diligence [on the school reform agenda] for over a decade,” says Valerie Strauss. “They bought into the rhetoric of school reform and testing” mandated by No Child Left Behind. As for President Barack Obama’s proposed Race to the Top initiatives, Strauss faults the news media for failing to ask whether “the rhetoric matches the practice. There’s nothing new under the sun. Some of the things that didn’t work 30, 40 or 50 years ago still don’t work….We’ve taken as truth whatever Bill Gates says.”

(HT: Romenesko)

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  1. BL1Y says:

    If we’re so smart, why didn’t we already know this?

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  2. Mark Russell says:

    As a teacher, I know that schools today aren’t any more successful or unsuccessful than they were when I was in school 30+ years ago. However, when I graduated school, a mediocre secondary education was enough to ensure a middle class life. That isn’t the case anymore. To move into the middle class and stay there, a students needs a world class education with post secondary education. We aren’t providing that to today’s students.

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    • Steve S. says:

      Shouldn’t the free market naturally push/motivate enough people to a post-secondary education? The trends suggest that more people are going to college, but how much would ever be enough?

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      • tmeier says:

        The poster is saying the education supplied needs to be better to get the same result but it hasn’t improved.

        A market approach might make a difference but when a state subsidized school system is available most people will take it. Try selling a high quality product at a reasonable price when you are competing with a poor product that is ‘free’ and see how far the market gets you. The state system is giving an inadequate education for today’s need so by the time young people finish high school most of them are hopelessly behind.

        In any case, market based education would probably raise the average by promoting disparity and that’s not ‘democratic’. If everybody can’t have a cookie, nobody gets a cookie.

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  3. Kristine says:

    Oh good, schools have gotten better at molding children into workers instead of free-thinkers. Or maybe they got better at weeding out the ones who don’t fit in this system?

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    • BonnieLB says:

      Not touching the first sentence (sounds like you’ve already made up your mind). But the second sentence is puzzling. Schools today are much LESS likely to “weed out” kids. They are required to follow behavior plans and provide resources for learning disabilities.

      For that matter, one of the reasons we compare badly to other countries such as China, is precisely *because* we don’t weed kids out. International test scores compare the best of other countries to all of our students.

      Your post is snarky, but factually incorrect. Any chance that will cause you to reconsider? (Hint: free thinking should involve reconsidering one’s cherished beliefs.)

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      • Jane says:

        Oh, but schools DO weed kids out. Ever since NCLB, any child that can’t learn on a standardized testing schedule is weeded right out. Ask the parent of a child with any type of learning disability.

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  4. Steve Nations says:

    It seems to me that almost all media stories about education are about testing and setting high standards. Which is great, of course. But there is never any mention about how we’re going to teach better/differently in order to raise test scores and meet these high standards. No stories about dividing kids by psychological types and focus the teaching style to meet the kids’ learning style. No stories (or very few) about how technology can help — and how it can’t help. It’s so easy to decide to raise test scores, and so hard to do it. We need much much more focus on how to do it. Those are the people I want to hear from.

    For what it’s worth, I’m very happy with my kids’ schools.

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    • Joe Dokes says:


      Your last comment is practically a cliche ,”For what it’s worth, I’m very happy with my kids’ schools.” This is the overwhelming view of people when they discuss education. That is, education is in crisis, public schools are awful, teachers are lazy, buy my kids school is great.”

      How can it be that when parents are surveyed about the quality of their own kids schools they are generally positive, but when asked about education in general they are overwhelmingly negative?

      The reality is that America Schools are doing about as well as they have ever done, and considering the level of immigration and the increase in impoverished students this is a bit of a victory.

      The other reality is that we can and should do better, but as a teacher for 19 years who has lived through reform after reform, I am now at a loss for what would truly improve education. About the only systemic reform that I could wholeheartedly recommend is a lengthening of the scholl year. Currently the average US student spends 180 days in the class compared to over 200 for those at the top of international performance exams.


      Joe Dokes

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      • Jen says:

        The only thing I’d add is that there really aren’t “learning styles” — Willingham has some great work about that out there. That doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t use an array of techniques and mix things up a bit, but the “learning styles” stuff is actually…not at all supported.

        That’s the problem with many of the reforms — they take the idea of something that worked in one school and try to move it to a bunch of different schools. But forced, top-down changes rarely work well to begin with. Add to that that only the “idea” is usually brought in, not all the other pieces that make it work at the one school (the principal, the teachers’ interests and buy-in and ownership of the idea, the demographics, the parents, the region of the country, the curriculum that’s used, etc.)

        Over and over in ed reform the “research” and “data” they’re using is that this one time, at this school I visited… It’s very, very hard to do good ed research and even harder to tease out what will make that change work at different schools.

        That said, I have moved a kid out of a school (considered pretty good by lots of people) to another school that’s only now, 4 years later, getting some attention for being a good school. Where I live the magnet and semi-choice system does at least provide a barometer that not every school is beloved, as shown by open spaces or very short waiting lists.

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      • Steve Nations says:

        But I don’t think education is in crisis.

        I think society is in crisis, but not education. (Well, maybe not crisis, but I think it’s on a downward slide.)

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      • AEJ says:

        All these conversations around education and folks aren’t mentioning the role of parents. I, like you am a seasoned teacher as well, and I just don’t think it’s fair that the trend is to blame teachers for every ill of the educational system.

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  5. James says:

    “The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared…”

    Perhaps that has more to do with moving the goalposts. Would the American with some college today be better educated than the high school graduate of 70 years ago?

    It does seem, though, that the problem is less with the school system than with the large segments of society that have embraced deliberate ignorance as a virtue.

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    • nobody.really says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • tmeier says:

        Har, har. Actually most high school graduates today don’t know which major combatants were allied with each other, so I’d say no; they don’t know who won WWII.

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      • Jen says:

        Gotta agree with tmeier — unless you’re in higher level classes, the average high school student?…the average adult?… not so much.

        Also, currently trendy amongst reformers is a bent against “content knowledge” aka “stuff you can just look up on the internet.”

        I kid you not that there are people who believe that you can create problem-solving, critical thinkers from students that have no actual knowledge in their heads to think about.

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  6. Eric M. Jones. says:


    1) The US is rare in believing in universal education. This fantasy imposes great strains on the system.

    2) Throwing classroom troublemakers out of the system seems natural–but is rarely done.

    3) Perhaps education can never keep up with the advances in technology and science. Probably better to stick to the basics as these don’t change so rapidly.

    4) The teacher’s union is a major impediment to improvements and should be scrapped. (…and I was a teacher.)

    5) Schools cannot be modeled on the (amazing) Geoffrey Canada’s of the world. There aren’t enough of them.

    6) The Bismarckian model of education makes good soldiers and laborers, but hey….?

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  7. MrAtoZ says:

    It seems like schools are just like their student bodies, in that they fall on a bell curve of aptitudes and outcomes: some are great, some are awful, most in between. Some over perform, given their circumstances, and some disappoint. Valerie Strauss constantly blogs in the Washington Post against NCLB, to the point where some legitimate criticisms against a focus on rote testing, and rote teaching to the test, sound like nails on the chalkboard. We have to have some benchmarks. We have to have some means of shifting resources and removing underperforming teachers (and schools as well). And no, school reform is not the pancea to eliminate all of the socioeconomic ills inherent in our society. To paraphrase Paul Begala’s paraphrase of G.W. Bush, “Is our Schools learning?”

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  8. Ben Story says:

    The real question to me is are we using the right measurement? Is it right to measure the performance of every student against the yard stick of college being the end goal? Maybe it’s time for America to realize (like other countries have already done) that not every student is truly able to be President someday. For students where traditional subjects are not part of their aptitude, they should be offered training in a trade that interests them. I have seen people that floundered in the public schools, but can grasp math and other topics in the confines of a trade like carpentry or HVAC. Not everyone needs to go to college.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Not everyone needs to go to college — but everyone needs a plumber, and a master plumber is typically better paid than your average college graduate.

      We need more taxpayer/voter support for our vo-tech schools. This support may need to begin with people refusing to let schools use those programs as the dumping ground for kids with intellectual and behavioral problems.

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      • Zeke Kossover says:

        Few people disagree with vo-tech schools, but our experience with them is dismal. They were chronically underfunded with lousy teachers, and minorities were most likely to be sent to them, especially in the situation with two kids of equal ability test scores and grades, the non-white kid went to the vo-tech school and the white kid went to go the college prep school. If vo-tech schools were done right, it’d be just as hard, but in a different way, to do well at the vo-tech school as the college prep school, but that’s not how it worked out in the past.

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