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. Andrew Faris says:

    The take-away from this seems to me to be that it is just not helpful to talk about how “America’s schools” are doing. As soon as we say, “Well, the poor black and Hispanic children are struggling, sure, but the rest are doing quite well”, we too easily allow the poor black and Hispanic children to keep struggling while the rest do quite well.

    So maybe it’s more helpful to slice up the data and look for trends. Perhaps we ought to say, “We have schooling pretty well figured out for middle and upper class students, but we’re not so good with the lower classes.” That would seem to more accurately represent the whole picture than any blanket statement.

    An above-average-but-not-great baseball team might look at its roster and say, “Well, we hit the ball great but our defense is a wreck.” They would not just say, “We won 85 games. That’s above average. Woohoo!” And the reason they wouldn’t do that is because it wouldn’t really tell them (or us) that much. Let’s do the same with schools.


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    • Jen says:

      I agree with your take on this. However, that’s not how it’s going down, unfortunately. Suburban and upper middle class schools are still generally doing well. However NCLB has managed to affect education at all levels in its attempt to get “100% proficiency.” As it begins to affect better schools, people are looking at changing it.

      But educators and consultants all attend the same conferences, etc. and many ideas which might be great aimed at a very specific target are not useful nor appropriate for every school in the country.

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  2. Mike B says:

    If you break out US International test scores by state you’ll see something like Singapore, Hong Kong, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts , Finland, Minnesota, etc. The truth is that most of our school systems are doing phenomenal jobs at educating students, even on an international stage, however states like Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, etc are dragging down the national average.

    Also, people forget just how many more poor people the United States has compared to other developed countries. If you break out our test scores by district % poverty rate we beat every other country with a similar poverty rate. So schools in Princeton New Jersey will beat out countries with a 4% poverty rate like Finland and Norway and schools in Newark NJ will beat out placed with a 20% poverty rate like Mexico. Basically, the schools aren’t the problem…poverty is. But our political leaders (or at least a subset of them) would rather blame teachers than try to fix poverty.

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    • Jen says:

      I wish I could like your comment several times over, Mike B.

      And the other truth is that if you took the teachers at the high-performing schools in the high-performing states and swapped them out with the teachers at low-performing high poverty schools — little would change. If anything, I’d expect no change at the higher-performing schools and perhaps a dip in scores at the lower performing schools, at least for a year or two while those teachers got used to teaching under such different conditions.

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  3. caleb b says:

    I participate in Big Brothers. I’ve kept up with my little and now he’s a senior in high school. I ask what he is doing in school, or what he’s learned recently. Here are some of his responses….I wish I were making these up:

    Q) Who was the first President?
    A) um….(long pause)…George?
    Q) George who?
    A) Man, I don’t even know

    Q) What day did the Colonies declare their independence from British rule?
    A) Huh?
    Q) When did America become it’s own country?
    A) I don’t know.
    Q) When did we declare our independence? You know, Independence Day? When is it? We celebrate it with fireworks.
    A) I think it’s in July.

    Q) What are nouns
    A) Um…they are words
    Q) Yes, but what kind of words?
    A) Long ones.

    Q) If you had $5 and wanted to buy packages of gum that cost $0.50, how many packages could you buy?
    A) Um…..I’d probably Google it.

    Q) What country is to the south of the United States
    A) Mexico.
    Q) Good! What country is to the north?
    A) Minnesota.
    Q) No, that’s a state. What country is north of the USA?
    A) Alaska?

    I’ve seen his report card, he’s never made lower than a C on anything. You tell me if we’re getting better at teaching kids.

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    • Billy D says:

      Some of these questions, and many of the topics taught in schools, are about “joining the club” of superior, “educated” people. There’s not much relevance to most people of when colonies declared their independence, what a noun is, or what genus a certain amoeba belongs to. Over the last few decades, US education has become more about proving that you are committed to achievement and can pay attention than it is about what you actually learn. That’s not ideal. We can do better.

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      • Caleb b says:

        @Billy D

        Personally, I would never hire someone who didn’t know that Independence Day is July 4th, or that Canada is north of the US. If they can’t absorb simple knowledge about the world around them, then I can’t trust that they’ll absorb any knowledge about the job I am hiring them to do.

        You’re right, you don’t need to know who George Washington is to do almost any job, but if you don’t know who he is, you ARE thought to be an idiot, which you probably are.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      > he’s never made lower than a C on anything. You tell me if we’re getting better at teaching kids.

      You think this is different from what happened in previous decades? Schoolteachers have given passing grades to kids who deserve to be flunked for at least half a century now. “The gentleman’s C” is a concept that goes back even longer than that at universities. If the teacher doesn’t expect to be supported by the school for handing out a well-deserved low grade, then she won’t do it. You should be glad that he’s getting grades as low as a C. One of my grandmothers was nearly fired for giving a well-deserved C to a politically protected fourth grader. After that, no teacher in her entire building gave a grade lower than a B for years.

      On the bigger picture, have you thought about what grades represent these days? It’s not the acquisition of knowledge. It’s whether you “participate appropriately” (social skills) and “do your homework” (paperwork-related organizational skills). The New York Times had an article a few years back about a middle school that tried to change this. Students were given two grades for each class, one on whether they learned the material and one on whether they did all of the behavioral things right. Naturally, half the parents (including a community college instructor) thought this was just terrible, because it’s so important to bring a box of Kleenex to school that kids who can’t afford it should have lower grades than kids who can.

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  4. AaronS says:

    As a lifelong conservative who recently became a middle school teacher, I must tell you that I never thought I’d have a bad word to say about “No Child Left Behind.” Now I can hardly find anything good to say.

    Very simply, our curriculum is so rushed that I don’t get the joy of digging deep into a subject, or following very long on student questions. Nope, we have to move right along.

    I think that the best way to judge teachers is probably one that is utterly impractical: It is to check on those students 20 years from now…to see how they’ve done…to see which teachers they felt made the most difference (since many current students likely do not perceive such things at the time).

    So how DO we measure? I think that we should simply create a test with, oh, 100 questions that require the children to REASON out the answers, perhaps justify them, etc.

    Someone wisely said that after you’ve forgot all you learned in school, what’s left is…education. THAT is what we need to be testing, I think. Because if you can reason and read, you WILL make the important leaps in creative thought that are needed for success.

    Of course, I can’t imagine this being as practical as I’ve implied. But one can wish….

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Question: Is your dislike for NCLB actually NCLB’s fault, or is it the fault of your state, which foolishly chose to have that jam-packed curriculum and foolishly chose to use (only) a simplistic bubble test to measure achievement?

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  5. rationalrevolution says:

    Yeah, I’ve been saying this as well. People act as though the education that kids receive at public schools today is inferior to what they received in the past. This is VERY FAR from the truth. The only measure by which the US is not doing as well today as it was in the past is RELATIVE to OTHER countries, but countries around the world have seen major gains in education, so public school students of today are still far outperforming public school students of 20 years ago, or even 30, 40, or 50 years ago, its just that 50 years ago America’s public school students were doing better than students in most every other country, but now our students are “more average” when compared to other countries.

    For example, they are teaching math in elementary school now that used to not be taught until high school 40 years ago. That’s pretty astounding really.

    Yet, if you listen to the “reformers” you would think that they were teaching calculus in 5th grade 50 years ago and today 12th graders can’t even learn algebra, when in reality it is more like the other way around.

    But here is the real issue. America outperformed the rest of the world at a time when economic inequality was much lower in America than in the rest of the world, and today the rest of the world is outperforming America at a time when they have lower economic inequality and ours is higher….

    Now put 2+2 together…

    Relative educational performance of developed nations tracks very closely with economic inequality…

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  6. Joe says:

    The data shows that over twenty years, the expenditures on public education have tripled with no improvement in the standardized test results. Public schools in economically challenged areas continue to fail. Students applying to colleges learn that they are not adequately prepared.

    The Teachers Union has a large hand in this failure. Like the auto unions of the 90’s they are about higher wages, more benefits, and the status quo.

    When the discussion moves towards quality metrics on teacher’s performance, the ability to dismiss failing teachers, and willingness to accept change then we will see improvements in the public school system.

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