U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

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Everyone knows U.S. public schools are failing.

Just like everyone knows you should never wake sleepwalkers, bulls hate red and Napoleon was short.

Wrong on all counts. Waking sleepwalkers will cause them no harm – in fact, they’re more likely to harm themselves while sleepwalking. Bulls are colorblind; they’re attracted to movement. And Napoleon was 5’7”, which was above average height for Frenchman during his lifetime.

So why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job?

Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true.

It’s not.

Let me repeat that in no uncertain terms – America’s public schools are NOT failing. They are among the best in the world. Really!

Here’s why: the United States educates everyone. Most other countries do not.

We have made a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home. Heck! We even provide education to children who are here illegally.

That can’t be said of many countries with which we’re often compared – especially countries comparable to the U.S. in size or diversity. So from the get-go, we have an advantage over most of the world.

We define education differently. Though our laws are woefully backward, in practice we look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some.

But that’s not all! We also provide some of the highest quality education you can get in the world! We teach more, help more, achieve more and yet we are criticized more than any system in any country in the world.

TEST SCORES

Critics argue that our scores on international tests don’t justify such a claim. But they’re wrong before you even look at the numbers. They’re comparing apples to pears. You simply can’t compare the United States to countries that leave hundreds of thousands of rural and poor children without any education whatsoever. The Bates Motel may have the softest pillows in town, but it’s immediately disqualified because of the high chance of being murdered in the shower.

No school system of this size anywhere in the world exceeds the United States in providing free access to education for everyone. And that, alone, makes us one of the best.

It doesn’t mean our system is problem free. There are plenty of ways we could improve. We’re still incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas are often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students don’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students. But at least at the very outset what we’re trying to do is better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu.

However, for some people, this will not be enough. They’ll say that despite our high ideals, the quality of what we actually provide our students is low. After all, those international test scores are so low.

First point: it depends on the scores you’re looking at. American elementary and middle school students have improved 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 rarely mentioned on the nightly news).

Even on the PISA test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries, US children are far from the bottom of the scale. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’ve always been in the middle for all the decades since they’ve been making these comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

IDEALS AND POVERTY

To some this just demonstrates that our schools have always been mediocre. But again you’re overlooking the consequences of our ideals.

The broader the spectrum of children who take a test, the lower the average score will be. In other words, if only your top students take the test, your average score will be very high. If only your top and middle students take the test, your average score will still be quite high. But if ALL of your students take the test, your average score will be lower.

Now add in poverty. Living in poverty reduces your access to health care, books, early childhood education and many other factors that increase learning throughout your life. Children from poor families are already more than a year behind those of rich parents on the first day of kindergarten. If you only test the wealthiest students, the average test score will probably be quite high. The average score will drop dramatically if you test all of your students.

That’s why many of these countries where the poorest children do not have access to education have higher test scores than the United States. You’re not comparing equals. The United States has the highest child poverty rate in the Western World. And we don’t hide them away. We include them on our tests. That has a major impact on our scores. But talking heads on TV almost always ignore it. They pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s the only way they can use these test scores to “prove” to a gullible audience that America’s schools are failing.

But if you fairly compare education systems and factor in the equal access we provide for all children to an education, our system comes out way on top. We have one of the best systems in the world.

But wait! There’s more!

SPECIAL EDUCATION

Not only does the United States serve all children regardless of academic achievement or poverty. We also serve far more students with disabilities.

Why are there so many special education children in the USA? Because we have a higher standard of living.

A standard pregnancy lasts about 280 days or 40 weeks. However, some mothers give birth to children after only 28 weeks. Two decades ago, these babies would not have survived. Today, they often do. Five years later that child will enter kindergarten and our school system will be responsible for teaching that student to read, write and learn math. In other countries, premature babies have a much lower chance of survival. They don’t survive to become the special education population. So things as diverse as the live-birth rate actually affect average test scores.

Another counterintuitive factor is the suicide rate. In many countries where pressure to perform at the highest levels on standardized tests is extreme, many children are actually driven to suicide. This is especially true in numerous Asian countries with a record of high scores on these international tests. So a higher suicide rate actually increases test scores.

Would you say this makes other countries superior to the United States? Heck no! In fact, just the opposite. I certainly wouldn’t wish more underperforming U.S. students were ending their lives so we could do better on international tests. Nor would I wish that more premature babies died to improve our international standing.

We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some countries these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.

In every public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they are there benefiting from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our non-special education students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.

Of course, most of our special education students are also included in our test scores. Yes, other countries that ignore these children and exclude them from testing get higher scores. But so what? Do you mean to tell me this makes them better? No, it makes them worse.

In many ways, we are the gold standard, not them. They should be emulating us, not the other way around. They should be jealous of the way we prize each other’s humanity. We shouldn’t be salivating at test scores achieved through shunning certain students in favor of others.

CURRICULUM AND STRATIFICATION

But it’s not just who we teach, it’s also what we teach.

Compared to many other countries, U.S. school curriculum is often much wider and varied. Countries that focus only on testing often leave out sciences, arts, literature and humanities.

Unfortunately, the push from policymakers even in the U.S. has been to narrow curriculum to imitate some of the worst practices of our competitors. But in many districts we still strive to create well-rounded graduates and not just good test-takers.

The bottom line: the curriculum at most American schools is more inclusive than that found internationally. We even include societal issues like alcohol and drug abuse prevention, stress reduction and relaxation, and physical fitness programs.

In addition we don’t stratify our children based on academic ability to nearly the same degree as many international schools. We don’t weed out our worst students through middle and high school until only our most capable are left in 12th grade. Nor is college only open to our best and brightest. We make a much greater effort than many other countries to keep this option open to as many students as possible regardless of whether they can afford it or not. 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. Meanwhile, Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and for the first time minority students are catching up with their white counterparts.

It’s not easy. But it’s something we’re committed to as a nation. And that’s not true around the world.

SIZE MATTERS

Finally, there’s the issue of size. The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 324,450,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools.

It’s much easier to educate fewer children. Even excellent education systems would struggle with our sheer numbers. Small systems often outshine bigger ones. For instance, I might be able to make dinner for my immediate family, but I’d find it much more challenging to prepare a meal for a banquet hall of hundreds. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether smaller nations could handle educating a population as big and diverse as ours without collapsing.

By any fair measure, America’s public education system is simply stunning. But the media perpetuates the myth that we’re failing.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND THE MEDIA

After decades of hearing these falsehoods, the American public is strikingly divided. On a 2011 Gallup poll, parents were asked their opinion of their local school and the public was asked its opinion of schools in general. The results are enlightening. Parents who gave their local school an A grade were at the highest percentage ever (37%) whereas only 1% of respondents rated the nations schools that way. Why the difference? Respondents said it was mostly because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.

Why is education reporting so biased? Part of it is monetary. Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks. And who do you think owns the shrinking media conglomerates? That’s right, many of these same corporations.

But even when journalists want to be fair, it’s difficult for them to get the inside story of how our public schools work. They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Of course there would be a disconnect!

So we’re left with a public education system that should be the envy of the world being portrayed as a loser.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As ever, far right politicians on both sides of the aisle, whether they be Democratic Neoliberals or Republican Tea Partiers, are using falsehoods about our public schools to sell an alternative. They say our public schools are beyond saving and that we need to privatize. They call it school choice but it’s really just an attempt to destroy the system that has so much going for it.

We should strengthen public education not undermine it. We should roll up our sleeves and fix the real problems we have, not invent fake ones.

People act as if “alternative facts” were invented by the Trump administration. Our policymakers have been using them for decades in a libelous and dishonest campaign against our public schools.

They are some of the best in the world – if only people knew it.

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53 thoughts on “U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

  1. I wonder if autocratic Russia is behind this war on public education too, not only in the United States but in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. It has been documented that Russia used the same cyber-war tactics to get the UK to vote itself out of the EU like it did to get the Kremlin candidate, extreme narcissist, and psychopath, Littlefingers Donald Trump elected president of the United States.

    Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will because we destroyed ourselves.”

    Was Lincoln wrong? Russia > cyberwar against our public schools and democratic elections = our own destruction as a republic. Yes, we are destroying ourselves with help from millions of deplorable Americans who allowed Russia/Putin to fool them.

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  2. Also, English Language Learners lower test scores. My district has a large population where English is their second language. It’s difficult to do well on a test when you can’t understand the words yet. Their scores lower the overall results and don’t clearly reflect their abilities. These children learn quickly, but are at a disadvantage at first.

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  3. This is well worth reading. I believe in public education as our public schools represent
    Our large variety of backgrounds and beliefs. By learning to respect and get along with people who may be very different from them, our children are preparing to become well informed and responsible citizens of our country.

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    • Though this article is woefully short on comparative date, the general sentiment is absolutely correct. However, pretending that one political faction is responsible for the usual negative sentiment towards the U.S. school system shows the authors ignorance and bias. Because, in fact, all political factions use the school systems of this country as a pawn in their quest for power. If a democrat is running for office, well, then the school systems are terrible because republicans made them that way and they will most certainly fix the issues! And if a republican is running for office then the school systems are terrible because of democrat control and, by golly, if elected they’ll fix them! The truth is, neither party fixes anything because there’s rarely anything to fix!

      We do a very good job in general with our public school systems in the U.S.
      We all know there are issues and no one who is being honest would say otherwise. However, as the author correctly pointed out, given the size, complexity and myriad of factors the school systems don’t have to deal with, or simply choose not to, we are amazingly proficient. When I moved to South Carolina in the late eighties all I heard was how bad the schools were. But that simply wasn’t true. I had been to school in Texas and Florida and I had good friends who had been to school in Virginia and Washington state. We were bored in some classes, challenged in others and needed help to keep up in a few more. Which was the same experience we had had in other schools around the country. Later, when erroneously using SAT scores to judge a states school system performance, I would hear how South Carolina ranked near the bottom of the barrel. Well, it turns out, that this state is one of the 25 or so states that at the time encouraged maximal participation in the SAT. Students who never intended on going to college were taking the test because they thought they were supposed to.

      I was long out of high school when this was brought to my attention and I was skeptical so I looked it up. At that time the SAT corporation website offered a plethora of demographic data about students from each state taking their test. And low and behold, the top tier student from S.C. scored just about as well as the top tier students from every other state. We would have ranked mid pack had all states limited the test to only the top 50 percentile students. And the top ranked state during the time I looked up this data was, that well known bastion of academia, that’s right, Iowa! Of course, only three percent of high school students took the test. And this year, Illinois topped the list with it’s grand four percent participation rate! That’s not to say these sates and many others with high score but low participation don’t do a good job educating their students. And even the SAT corporation says there are too many variables to use their test as a comparative tool between state education systems. However, it just goes to show that how you derive your numbers is a major factor in how those numbers appear!

      Our top tier students compete very favorably against the best students from any other country. But unlike a great many countries, we don’t have the luxury of catering to only the best of the best. So when a politician of any background claims our schools are failing I want to see the apples to apples evidence. As John Kennedy so rightly said, Let us not seek the Republican answer, or the Democrat answer, but the right answer. These days Kennedy, just like Reagan, is praised by his respective party. But if they were actually running for office neither man would be considered either liberal or conservative enough.

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      • Dave,

        I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood my political perspective. When I say “why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job? Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true,” I’m including far right policymakers of BOTH parties. I tried to clarify this later in the article when I wrote, “As ever, far right politicians on both sides of the aisle, whether they be Democratic Neoliberals or Republican Tea Partiers, are using falsehoods about our public schools to sell an alternative.” The way I see it, both neoliberals and tea partiers are far right on the political spectrum.

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  4. Sorry for the mistakes, I thought I’d have a chance to edit this. However, in the second paragraph it should read, However, as the author correctly pointed out, give the size, complexity and myriad of factors other countries school systems don’t have to deal with, or simply choose not to, we are amazingly proficient.

    And later in the second paragraph it should read. Later, when reporters and politicians were erroneously using SAT scores t judge a states school system performance, I would hear how South Carolina ranked near the bottom of the barrel.

    Sorry about that. I’ll be more carful proof reading before posting nest time!

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  5. I love your points, Dave. As a teacher, I can say yes to the apples-and-kumquats of international comparisons! Yes, it starts at birth. Even other developed countries do not always make the same efforts the US does to save premature children. When I lived in Scotland in the 1990s, a baby born before a certain number of weeks was considered a miscarriage, and no heroic efforts were made to save the child. US preemie outcomes improve year to year, but saving the tiniest babies does mean that more children with disabilities show up in K-12 education. Then there is inclusion, as you mentioned. My district had to tussle with the state about standardized testing of children with severe disabilities. One year, we were told that every child with an IQ above 45….yes, 45…had to take the high-stakes tests that typical children take, at the grade level consistent with the disabled child’s chronological age. This included kids who were also legally blind and severely autistic. Yes, these kids have more smarts than they can show on a test, but that’s the point. They don’t show their strengths on tests, but in other ways. Show me a kid in Asia who is blind and autistic, with an IQ of 46, who goes to a regular school in their home country and passes their international, high-stakes tests. Show me one! Then, there was the child living in my school district who was sent to a school for special needs in a neighboring state, since he lived right on the two states’ border. We had administrators from his home state insisting that he take his home state’s high-stakes test, when he was a pupil in another state that had a different curriculum and its own tests. (I know that last sentence was hard to follow, but so was the situation.) One wonders if school leaders in nations with shiny bright test scores have ever imagined the level of oversight and accountability that they would have to maintain in the US. One hears about how advanced students in India are. Yet a Christian ministry I support must provide school fees for poor students to attend school in India’s rural areas, and, in some cases, the ministry must start elementary schools, because there are none in the region. By comparison, I think of the accountability that public school principals have in my hometown. Principals are responsible for the attendance rates of all children within their school building’s geographic boundaries, even if those kids are enrolled in special schools not operated by the public school district. Explain to me how that is fair! As you know, school quality in other countries is not uniform either. In one province in India, I read that some teachers could not pass the Indian equivalent of an 8th grade level competency test. Yes, I know you can hear horror stories about low-achieving teachers in certain regions of the US also. My point is, the horror stories are not limited to American instructors, even though you’d think so, listening to US pundits.

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  6. Great article on American public education. However, I had a great laugh over the acronym PISA – what nitwit came up with that – I can almost hear the teenagers laughing in the blogosphere…!😊

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  7. You all must have read my book: Why America’s Public Schools Are the Best Place for Kids: Reality vs. Negative Perceptions. Thank you, all for spreading the truth. Now, call and go see your state legislators and tell them to STOP putting money into charters and also to start funding your states’ public schools appropriately because few states have caught up with funding since the recession of 2008. Also, get ALEC out of your state house!! This organization is doing the best they can to stop funding your state public schools. And also, stop the Chamber of Commerce from also bad-mouthing public schools–they also are trying to destroy public funding for your state public schools! Be active!

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