In a stroke of whimsy or irony, two new studies about American education have been released in time to get the most media coverage during School Choice Week. The first, from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), looks at the international tests that rank students worldwide in reading, math, and science.
The second is a report from the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable that looks at the international tests but also compares economic equity, social stress, support for families and schools, and student and system outcomes in nine G-7 countries.
Advocates of school choice often speak of a crisis in American public education, but these newest reports indicate otherwise. In fact, both show that American public school children are doing remarkably well.
For example, the NCES report shows that in schools with less than 25 percent poverty rates, American children scored higher in reading than any other children in the world. In. The. World.
The takeaway is simple. Our middle-class and wealthy public school children are thriving. Poor children are struggling, not because their schools are failing but because they come to school with all the well-documented handicaps that poverty imposes – poor prenatal care, developmental delays, hunger, illness, homelessness, emotional and mental illnesses, and so on.
School choice advocates argue that private or charter schools are the answer – but there again the results show otherwise. In Florida, for example, public school children outscored their private school counterparts, and nationally, charters are outperformed by traditional schools the majority of the time. If you want more bang for your buck as a community stakeholder and taxpayer, traditional public education does a better job of educating most children.
A different sort of concern about money, however, drives education reform these days. Forbes recently wrote that “the charter school movement [is] quickly becoming a backdoor for corporate profit.” Wall Street invests heavily in the charter movement, and testing companies push the idea that more tests and scripted curricula are a wise investment of scarce education dollars.
Instead, research is clear that money spent addressing the issues of child poverty are the most effective way to move test scores up – and more importantly, improve learning. However, many states have decreased their spending on education since the recession and those budget deficits are still in place. Head Start cuts are the worst in the history of the program, even though early childhood education is a critical part of helping children in poverty overcome their disadvantages.
The United States is, by far, the wealthiest and best-educated of the nine G-7 countries studied by the Horace Mann League and National Superintendents Roundtable, yet it posts some of the worst measures of economic inequality, social stress, and support for young families. We have the highest rates of substance abuse and violent deaths, for example, issues which negatively affect children and their performance in school.
The writers of the study have suggestions for all stakeholders. Teachers are tasked with making sure the connection between “formative forces in society” and the “summative scores” of children are communicated to communities.
The report asks communities to recognize that schools alone can’t address those formative forces.
For policymakers, the report says, “Celebrate the success of schools while helping address some of the out-of-school issues that challenge educators, communities, and young people every day. Enact constructive laws and policies that constantly support people on the front lines of our future. Encourage rather than withhold funds for research in the social, behavior, and economic sciences to advance the well-being of the nation’s people. Treat education as a ticket to an even better future, not as a political football.”
The report concludes that “Nobody understands the challenges and shortcomings of American schools better than the people who have dedicated their lives to them.” Yet educators are rarely asked for their expertise. That snub is bipartisan – with Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo taking a combative stand against public school teachers in his recent inaugural address, and Republican Governors of Nevada and Texas establishing committees on education comprised solely of non-educators.
If policy makers were to listen to educators – and to students and parents – they would hear that the real crisis in public education is the loss of our collective commitment to the common good. If we continue to make the kinds of choices that steer resources away from our neediest students, the false narrative of failing public schools will become a sad reality.