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)


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

Mark Russell

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.

Steve S.

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?


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.


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?


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.)

Steve Nations

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.

Joe Dokes


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



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.



"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.


"Would the American with some college today be better educated than the high school graduate of 70 years ago?"

Almost certainly. For example, an American with some college today would know who won WWII. High school graduates of 70 years ago wouldn't.


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.

Eric M. Jones.


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....?


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?"

Ben Story

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.

Enter your name...

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.

Andrew Faris

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.




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.

Mike B

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.