The secret successes of U.S. public schools
Why do Americans love to hate public education?
People routinely call our public schools “broken” and “failing.” In fact, the evidence clearly shows that American K–12 education is a lot better than most people think, but some readers have already decided to reject whatever proof I offer.
Many Americans reflexively reject good news.
First, the negative bias of media coverage conditions us to assume that everything is getting worse all the time. Bad news sells well, but good news attracts scant interest and consequently generates little income for media outlets.
Second, if we acknowledge a success, then someone deserves credit for it. As a nation of ingrates, we find that distasteful. We especially hate to recognize progress engineered by people we dislike.
Finally, many Americans fear that if we admit something is good, then we may accept that status quo as good enough and quit trying to make further improvements. They evidently assume that we cannot elicit constructive action from our fellow citizens unless we all think the sky is falling all the time.
All of these tendencies are profoundly counterproductive. History shows that societies make the greatest progress not during the worst of times — when people feel disheartened and helpless — but during revolutions of rising expectations: periods when an accumulation of small successes emboldens innovators to produce a burst of furious and often messy change with profound and long-lasting consequences. Examples include the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution and the current Digital Revolution. Relevant social movements include the Second Great Awakening — which gave birth to public education — and the Civil Rights Revolution, which helped define its central challenge: the quest for educational excellence and equity for all kids — irrespective of color, culture or income.
Far from discouraging future efforts, taking stock of past wins helps us build momentum by focusing on the problems that remain. For instance, the current economic recovery has halved unemployment and produced record corporate profits, but we still need to reduce income inequality and boost labor force participation. Our country has also halved violent crime since 1994, but firearms still kill more than 30,000 Americans per year — a recurring nightmare that will not end until we improve mental health services and toughen gun laws. The world has never been more peaceful, but we still need to defeat threats like ISIL, Boko Haram, the Taliban and North Korea.
Similarly, we should acknowledge what our schools do well even as we work to remedy their flaws.
The Gleaning Power of PISA
When analysts want to rap American education on the knuckles, the yardstick of choice is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). a standardized test of math, reading and science administered every three years to 15-year-old students in selected countries around the world.
At first glance, the PISA results appear damning. In 2012, U.S. students ranked 36th in math, 28th in reading and 24th in science. (On the map above, places with better math scores show up as orange or blue. Students in pink countries reckon about as well as American kids. Red and black nations struggle in math. Gray areas did not participate.)
That looks pretty bad for a country that legitimately aspires to lead the world in everything good.
Donald Trump complains “we’re at the bottom of the list,” but since a total of 65 jurisdictions participate in PISA, it would be more accurate to say that the U.S. ranks in the middle of the pack.
It’s a pretty elite pack, by the way. Only 63 of the 192 countries in the world make their kids take PISA. Most of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Oceania opt out. Poor nations with terrible education systems dislike documenting that inadequacy.
So, PISA establishes an educational pecking order among the richest one-third of the world’s countries. Finishing in the middle of that pack means that American students, on average, outperform their peers in five-sixths of the world’s countries.
In other words, our kids learn about as much as similarly privileged counterparts in the rich, industrialized world: Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
Vietnam was the only poor nation to beat the odds and outrank the U.S. on the 2012 PISA. No other Third World country even came close.
What about China? Nope. The People’s Republic of China has no PISA ranking as a country. It shows up as gray on the PISA maps because it refuses to test a representative sample of its students. A true cross-section would reveal a merely average school system that struggles to educate urban migrants, the rural poor and ethnic minorities in the hinterlands.
Instead, China cheats. The PRC systematically inflates its rankings by testing only selected students in three unusually wealthy cities. Not surprisingly, that shameless cherry-picking produces the illusion of educational excellence. Each of those three cities gets its own PISA rank; the maps show them as dots on the country’s coast. Shanghai finished first in math, reading and science. The former British colony of Hong Kong placed third in math and second in reading and science. Macau — a Portuguese possession until 1999 — ranked sixth in math and 16th in reading and science.
Of course, the same trick can work for the U.S. In 2012, three states had PISA break out independent scores from the national sample. Two New England states achieved world-class scores. If Massachusetts were its own country, its kids would rank 16th in math, 6th in reading and 9th in science. Connecticut students would place 18th, 10th and 16th, respectively. Sadly, Florida’s scholars scored significantly worse than the U.S. average.
However, if you really wanted to replicate China’s cherry-picking, then you would split out the performance of American students by income instead of geography.
When you do this, you get Shanghai-caliber scores. Students at U.S. schools with child poverty rates under 10% — if they had their own country — would rocket to the top of the international standings, ranking 6th in the world in math and 2nd in reading and science.
American kids in schools with poverty rates of 10–25% would do nearly as well, placing in the top 20 in math and the top 10 in reading and science.
The moral of the story is that American public schools generally do a fine job of educating kids in low-poverty schools. Students in those institutions learn about as much as kids in Finland and Hong Kong.
Conversely, the tragedy is that most low-income children in the U.S. live in segregated neighborhoods and attend segregated schools where they experience a Third World education. When you split out the performance levels of kids in high-poverty American schools, they sink far below the national average, resting just above the bottom third of the PISA sample, on par with pupils in relatively successful developing countries like Turkey and Mexico. That is still a better education than three-quarters of the world’s kids currently receive, but we can and should expect and demand better from our society, schools and children.
This problem is not new. For the last few decades, we have tried to improve education for poor children primarily through educational reform. Some of those reforms hold promise, and those efforts should continue.
However, there are two things we have not seriously tried that will enable those reforms to succeed.
First, we need to address school funding disparities. Local property values still dictate much of the existing inequality. On average, American schools appear adequately funded, but here again, the average masks massive injustice: affluent districts awash in cash, while poorer districts struggle.
Second, we need to get serious as a civilization about eliminating child poverty. Most of the countries that outrank us on PISA did it a long time ago. In fact, that is precisely why their kids score so well, because their children grow up free from the material and cultural deprivation that so many kids in this country must endure. The same methods other industrialized nations used to eliminate poverty there would work just as well here. It is a matter of choice, a matter of will and a matter of heart. It is a moral test that America continues to fail.
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