"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Feeling Good About Your Child After Parent Teacher Conferences? Maybe You Shouldn't Be.

Many parents with children still in the public school system have just completed this year's round of parent teacher conferences. This has become a time when many of us feel that it is not only our child who is being graded, but ourselves as well. An episode of The Simpsons (apologies for such a low brow reference) demonstrated this so well when Marge and Homer used Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who had to go meet with which child's teachers. The winner got to sit in a class and hear how wonderful Lisa was. The loser had to hear how bad Bart was performing at school and face the ridicule of a teacher who blamed the parents for not doing their part in their son's education. But should the winner in this scenario really be feeling so good about himself/herself?

A report in Education Next shows that suburban school districts, which tend to look better academically when compared to their urban neighbors, actually look worse when compared to other developing countries. (To find out where your district stands go to The Global Report Card and plug in your district information.) This is probably not news to our regular readers. Jay Green and Josh McGee developed the Global Report Card to draw attention to this purposeful misdirection.

Some key findings in their report:
  • ...only 820 of the 13,636 public-school districts for which we have 2007 math results had average student achievement that would be among the top third of student performance in other developed countries. That is, 94 percent of all U.S. school districts have average math achievement below the 67th percentile.
  • In four states, there is not a single traditional district with average student achievement above the 50th percentile in math.
  • In 17 states, there is not a single traditional district with average achievement in the upper third relative to our global comparison group.
  • Apart from charter school districts, in over half of the states, there are no more than three traditional districts in which the average achievement would be in the upper third.
If you think you are safe because you are in an affluent district and everything you read about your schools is glowing, consider what the Global report Card found for Beverly Hills, California.
The city has a median family income of $102,611 as of 2000, which places it among the top 100 wealthiest places in the United States with at least 1,000 households. The Beverly Hills population is 85.1 percent white, 7.1 percent Asian, and only 1.8 percent black and 4.6 percent Hispanic. The city is virtually synonymous with luxury...If Beverly Hills is not the refuge from the ills of the education system that elite families are seeking, it’s not clear what would be.
But when we look at the Global Report Card results for the Beverly Hills Unified School District, we don’t see top-notch performance. The math achievement of the average student in Beverly Hills is at the 53rd percentile relative to our international comparison group. That is, one of our most elite districts produces students with math achievement that is no better than that of the typical student in the average developed country. If Beverly Hills were relocated to Canada, it would be at the 46th percentile in math achievement, a below-average district. If the city were in Singapore, the average student in Beverly Hills would only be at the 34th percentile in math performance.
Elite, well educated parents who provide enviable funding to their district and demand top performance only achieve a ranking in the lower third of developed countries. How can this be? Shouldn't they have seen this failure either in their child's report card or their district's public rankings and been pushing the schools to do better? The truth is they probably never saw a problem. Local school districts have an incentive to make their performance look good. The easiest way to do this is to compare their performance to that of large urban districts. Yet all this does is highlight the limited impact of socio-economics on education.

Jay Green reminds us of an old saying in public policy, “programs for the poor are poor programs.” Our dogged determination to bring the bottom X% up academically is being addressed at the expense of our top students. Academic rigor is constantly being eroded as we attempt to "lessen the achievement gap." Other countries do not worry about this achievement gap because they recognize that their poorest academic achievers will not be the ones their economies are counting on to create jobs, or discover life, or time saving, technologies. There is virtually no trophy business in Calcutta because the only trophies awarded are to professionals who actually win. Here in America, our kids are drowning in trophies but not really winning anything.

Everything that has been said on this blog before about such global comparisons still applies. Other countries do not include everyone in their testing or test results, so such comparisons are not an apples-to-apples scenario. Other countries do not teach as broad a curriculum as the U.S. etc. But the Global Report Card only looks at two basic measures of education, math and reading. If we cannot excel in the basics, what makes us think we are excelling in the rest of the curriculum?


  1. Ouch. My school district is only so so and we have the highest paid superintendent in the state. Maybe it IS time to pay administrators based on student performance? We could save money in the Kirkwood School District!

  2. Quit calling these places schools. They are Comformatories.


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