As your editor made clear in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast and as this publication consistently points out, there are no corners of American public education that are cordons solitaire from the education crisis. From the so-called gifted-and-talented programs that end up doing little to improve student achievement (and actually do more damage to all kids by continuing the rationing of education at the heart of the education crisis), to the evidence that suburban districts are hardly the bastions of high-quality education they proclaim themselves to be (and often, serve middle class white children as badly as those from poor and minority households), it is clear that the educational neglect and malpractice endemic within the nation’s super-clusters of failure and mediocrity isn’t just a problem for other people’s children.
So it isn’t surprising that Harvard University’s latest report on the performance of American high school sophomores on the latest edition of PISA shows that kids from college-educated households are lagging behind their peers around the world. The data once again serves as a reminder that educational malpractice borne upon poor and minority children visit their better-off peers in the form of academic neglect.
Many middle class and wealthy households — especially those in suburbia — want to believe that their children are receiving high-quality education. After all, they have paid dearly for that belief (especially in the form of buying homes in suburban districts that tout themselves as being top-performing), and, just as importantly, think that their status as highly educated means that their children will also turn out that way. Yet the fact that American high school sophomores from highly-educated households rank 28th in the world in math proficiency on PISA — lagging behind both top-performing nations in math such as South Korea, and recent entrants into developed nation status such as Estonia — is one clear sign that their beliefs are not so. Even more shocking to such thinking is the fact that American 15-year-olds from college-educated homes rank 26th in the world in reading, trailing behind a long list of nations that include Poland (eighth) and Turkey (23rd).
Contrary to the arguments of traditionalists, this is not a problem that can be blamed either on diversity or poverty myths. Just 43 percent of American high school sophomores from highly-educated homes scored proficient in math on PISA, a level lower than 56.5 percent proficiency rate for Canada, a nation with equivalent levels of socioeconomic diversity. Nor can the nation’s struggles to provide high-quality education to the children of collegians be blamed on the nation’s high levels of immigration; 55.2 percent of high school sophomores in Australia, which, like the United States, has a large immigrant population (with 40 percent of emigres coming from developing Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand), scored proficient on the exam.
Meanwhile the data, along with the analysis from Harvard’s Paul Peterson, Hoover Institution fellow Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, confirms what has been evident for some time. Just 49 percent of high seniors from college-educated homes read at proficient and advanced levels, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a mere three percentage points higher than in 2002; average scale scores for seniors from college-educated homes increased by a mere three points within the past 11 years. While some education researchers such as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution may want to argue that the PISA data is irrelevant because it supposedly doesn’t reflect what American kids are learning in school, the fact that kids from highly educated households (as well as kids whose parents are high school dropouts) are not performing well makes such theorizing seem silly.
None of this data should be shocking. After all, the United States struggles mightily in providing its most-vulnerable kids with high-quality education. American 15-year-olds from poorly-educated homes ranked 20th in the world in math proficiency compared to their peers. The reality is that the underlying culprits of the education crisis as much affect children from middle class homes and households where parents have sheepskins as those whose parents are poor and are high school dropouts.
Low-quality teaching is as likely to be a problem for kids from middle class and highly-educated homes as it is for poor and minority peers. The average low-performing teacher in math in a Florida school serving mostly-middle class kids is just two-hundredths of a standard deviation better than an equally laggard peer in school serving poor kids, according to a 2010 study from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. This is because traditional district school operators no matter where they are located draw their teachers from university schools of education which have refused to overhaul how they recruit and train aspiring instructors. There’s also the fact that suburban districts are as hindered by the same state laws and collective bargaining agreements that also make it difficult for urban district counterparts to reward high-quality teachers and remove those who don’t deserve to be in classrooms. Suburban districts, after all, also have to deal with quality-blind seniority-based privileges such as reverse-seniority layoff rules, pay scales that favor seat time over performance, and restrictions on the use of objective student test score growth data from use in teacher evaluations.
The low-quality curricula that has long been a problem for poor families is also proving to be difficult for middle class households as well. Just 35 percent of middle-schoolers in Fairfax County, Va., took Algebra 1, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. That’s just slightly higher than the 22 percent Algebra 1 course-taking rate for middle-schoolers in nearby D.C. Public Schools and lower than the 43 percent rate for kids in Alexandria’s district, both of which serve mostly poor and minority populations. Particularly for highly-educated (and usually middle-class) black and Latino families, the penchant of many teachers, guidance counselors and school leaders to try to relegate their children to courses that won’t prepare them for success in higher education and in life is as much a problem in districts that serve wealthier households as in urban districts serving their less-wealthy counterparts.
Meanwhile restrictions on the expansion of school choice — including charters and even ability to choose courses while in traditional districts — is even more problematic for college-educated families as it is for those from poor households. This is because college-educated households are likely to live in suburbia, where districts do all they can to block the expansion of charter schools and other forms of choice. The Zip Code Education policies that condemn poor families in suburbia to failure mills also restrict middle class and highly-educated families to warehouses of mediocrity; the fact that districts can change their zoning policies arbitrarily to benefit those with the clout to make it happen also subjects highly-educated families to capricious changes they can only overcome if they pay dearly out of their own pockets for private schools.
Then there is the lack of high-quality data on district and school performance, which is as much a problem for highly-educated households as it is for less-educated ones. Because school data remains a black box of sorts — with data on such matters as the performance of teachers in improving student achievement unavailable for use — families lack the information they need to make smart decisions. It is especially ridiculous that families can’t access data on teacher performance when evidence has shown that the quality of teaching can vary as much between classrooms as it does between schools. The fact that highly-educated families end up using proxies such as class sizes have no relation to quality of teaching and curricula means that they are merely guessing when it comes to helping their kids get into great schools.
The good news is that efforts such as the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards are key steps in addressing the woes that affect all families regardless of levels of education or income. But we need to step up on advancing systemic reform so that all families can provide their children with the high-quality education they need and deserve.
This starts with addressing teacher quality. It has long ago been clear that the nation’s ed schools are failing in recruiting and training teachers. Expanding the array of alternative teacher training outfits such as Teach For America is critical to boosting the pool of talented instructors who can help kids from both poorly-educated and college-educated households. It is also high time to ditch traditional teacher compensation and seniority-based privileges that keep laggard instructors in classrooms; utilizing student test score growth data in evaluations as well as in structuring teaching staffs must also be done.
Advancing the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards is also key, especially in states where choice remains restricted; it is clear that neither poor nor middle class children are receiving comprehensive college preparatory curricula. But just implementing the standards isn’t enough. Developing curricula that aligns with the standards (and embracing accountability measures that hold states and districts responsible for making this a reality) is also clear.
Expanding school choice and Parent Power (including blended learning options) must also happen. For reformers, this means making the case that choice allows for all families to meet the particular needs of their children. This starts by reaching out to highly-educated families from black and Latino backgrounds, who still face obstacles to providing their kids with high-quality education, as well as to the churches they attend. Working at the state level to place charter school authorization solely in the hands of state governments — which has already happened in states such as Georgia and Washington — would also make it easier to expand choice in suburbia. Giving families the power to choose courses fit for their kids, the subject of a report released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, would go a long way for all families.
Building comprehensive yet simple longitudinal data systems is also part of the solution. This includes providing data on teacher performance that can allow families to make smarter decisions. At the same time, reformers must also address the privacy concerns of some families. As the spectacular bust of education data outfit InBloom has shown, the fears of families about the misuse of student performance data can wreck any effort to empower them.
When we help all children, regardless of educational attainment or socioeconomic background, attain high-quality education, everyone benefits. And that includes those children whose parents have already reaped the benefits of higher levels of learning.