The Shocking Truth about American Schools

Rafiq Sarlie "Shocked That I am Quitting Facebook"

We are bombarded by constant messages about the many failures of our nation’s schools, and how poorly America is doing in comparison to other nations.

I am not impervious to the allure of an outrageous headline. Sometimes I resist. Generally, I am a sucker for click-bait.

It’s old hat that people are instinctually drawn to these stories. There are few things more human than our desire to rubber-neck at the scene of an accident or obsess over people’s unchecked base instincts gone awry.

In studying these stories of the human condition, we tell ourselves we are learning what not to do and behaviors, people and scenarios to avoid.

We are also learning to be afraid … very, very afraid.

And so it goes with American public schools. Our nation appears to love stories about the failure of schools to the point where no other narrative can take hold.

I get lulled into the abyss of mediocrity and filth just as much as the next person by following headlines about teachers who show up drunk and pantless to the first day of school. I’m simultaneously repulsed by – and engrossed in – the endless deluge of stories about teachers who have abused their power and authority with children.

The shocking truth is that most American schools in most American states are actually doing very well. Even though it’s true, this message consistently falls on deaf ears. Decent and even exceptional performance in American schools simply doesn’t make for a good headline.

Headline News: American Public Schools do Shockingly Well

Your gut response to this headline might be skepticism or, even worse, boredom.

Let’s examine the evidence. Take a hard look at the information conveyed by this image:

b0f123c41This image is just a sliver of data consolidated by the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES). For more detailed information on international performance on math and science, check out the TIMSS data here. For more details on international tests of reading, take a look at PIRLS results here.

In a nutshell, international tests of eighth-graders’ math skills on the TIMSS test reveal:

  • American students in 34 states outperform students in Australia.
  • American students in 27 states outperform students in England.
  • American students in 25 states outperform students in Hong Kong.
  • American students in six states outperform students in Finland (the holy grail of school reform).
  • American students in two states (Massachusetts and Vermont) outperform students in Korea and Japan.

Here’s a question, why don’t the headlines read, “8th graders in Massachusetts and Vermont top all but two countries in the world at math?” or better yet “Six of Top-Ten Performing Education Systems in the World are in the U.S.?”

The news is even better for American students’ performance in reading on the PIRLS test. American students typically do better on reading assessments than they do on math assessments, and the stark differences between states and socioeconomic classes that appear in the TIMSS dataset are slightly less pronounced with reading.

Other good news is that our nation’s performance on reading assessments is on an upward trajectory, and the enormous achievement gaps revealed forty years ago are slowly shrinking.

Meanwhile, we’re all still drinking the “sucky schools Kool-aid.”

Parents in Poorly-Performing Schools Can Improve Children’s Outcomes in School

One thing that these results highlight is the stark inequality between states. This vast inequality is unappealing for many Americans. While we’re okay with unequal wealth, we are most certainly not okay with unequal opportunities to get wealth(y). So how can parents help level the playing field for their kids?

In an earlier post I mentioned that, knowing schools generally aren’t equal, many parents shop around for school districts that perform well. Parents who are able to shop around might also consider moving to a state that performs well by using this tool.

Even when a parent is not in the market for a new home, and even when a parent is living in state that is performing below the United States average (e.g. Mississippi or Alabama – sorry folks), parents should know that most of the inequality between schools is driven by poverty.

PIRLS results show that some strategies parents engage in to improve students’ scores are related to income. For example, children do better in reading when their parents read to and in front of their children. Meanwhile, we know that families living in poverty are disproportionately illiterate.

Parents are also encouraged to send well-rested children to schools, yet we know that in many cases, children living in poverty are housing-insecure or reside in multi-family households where it’s harder, for obvious reasons, to get good sleep. Two other income-dependent, parenting practices are:

  • sending children to schools that have safe and orderly environments
  • sending children who are well-fed to school

On the other hand, we also know that parents, regardless of income-level, can exercise a lot of influence. Variables deflating math and reading scores can be offset by proactive, income-independent parenting strategies. When the data is distilled down to just a handful of critical parenting practices, it turns out that all parents, regardless of income, can engage in these two high-leverage, research-proven strategies:

  • engender in their children a positive attitude toward reading.
  • stock the home with high quality books (borrowed or bought).

Confounding the Trend

American parents are largely distrustful of American public schools. In fact, in a recent poll 84% of parents gave American public schools the grade of “C” or worse. One thing is for sure, the media knows that distrust exists, and they play into it. The public eats it right up because it confirms our suspicions and fears. It’s a vicious cycle.

Would it be interesting to know the drunk and pantless “teacher” in that national story was a last-second hire, and was actually a substitute teacher not a full-time classroom teacher? Should we be appalled by her behavior? Yes. Does she exemplify the 3.5 million teachers who are generally well-qualified and who always remember to wear their pants when they go to work? Definitely not.

Professor Emeritus David Berliner of Arizona State University regularly argues that the “bad schools” narrative is manufactured crisis. Others, like Valerie Strauss from the Answer Sheet, and Diane Ravitch claim the “bad schools” message is strategically encouraged by wealthy, small-government political activists with the aim of encouraging Americans to divest from government-run public schools and invest in for-profit charter schools, private schools and vouchers programs to save our supposedly “failing system.”

To digest this data, and to understand that things are going pretty well in schools requires an understanding of the nuance behind the headline. Nuance doesn’t play well at the water cooler or in a 140-character Tweet.

The next time someone quips, “Gosh, our nation’s schools suck.” Your informed response could include that nuance. Just in case, here are some new soundbites for your witty retort.

  • Many American students are still outperforming their international peers.
  • American schools are educating a more diverse and global population than the “good ole days.”
  • 3,499,999 out of 3,500,000 teachers show up to school fully-dressed.
  • American schools are building a largely-literate nation through a publicly-funded initiative.

Scholars would call this “interrupting the narrative.” I might just call it “conveying truth.”

My only hope in countering this message is that parents begin to understand how much power they have in improving their children’s education. And, you don’t have to live in the wealthiest, highest-performing district in a top-performing state to support you children’s education either.

 

**I am inclined to advocate for BOTH structural adjustments our nation can make to offset the effects of poverty in schools AND local or individual adjustments we can make to offset those effects.

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