Catherine Rampell: The myth about public schools

By Catherine Rampell

WASHINGTON — Have America’s public schools gotten worse over the years?

Americans seem to think so. Every time I write about why attending college is so crucial for moving up the income ladder — or, these days, for landing any job at all — I’m inundated with emails blaming the country’s K-12 system. Today’s workers have to go to college, readers argue, because our increasingly broken public schools have ceded responsibility for educating them.

Data from the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, a survey about education, reflect similar views. Over the past four decades, respondents have become increasingly likely to say that today’s students receive a “worse education” than they themselves did.

But it’s not clear that any of this is true, at least at the national level.

Few consistent tools are available to measure the quality of U.S. education over time; the best is probably the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, first administered in 1971. And believe it or not, NAEP scores have been steadily improving, with most national measures now at or around all-time highs. The biggest gains have generally gone to nonwhite students, helping narrow — though not eliminate — the achievement gap. Other metrics, too, suggest that schools are improving. Dropout rates are at record lows, and the share of high school students who take higher-level courses has risen.

On some level, parents seem to know this. At least, they appear happy with the schools their own children attend.

In the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, about 67 percent of public school parents said they would give their oldest child’s school a grade of “A” or “B.” But just 17 percent of the respondents would give “public schools nationally” the same score. This grading gap has widened in recent decades.

It’s a bit like “Fenno’s paradox,” named for political scientist Richard Fenno Jr.: Americans hate Congress but like their own congressman; they hate the public school system but like the school they actually interact with.

It’s hard to pinpoint why perceptions of national school quality seem to depart from reality.

It could be the heavy media attention paid to the nation’s most troubled schools. Rising expectations might play a role, says Dana Goldstein, the author of “The Teacher Wars.” Decades ago, policymakers and education advocates pledged to close the achievement gap, and though it has narrowed, its persistence leads to disappointment.

Schools are also expected to make more students college-ready today than in the past. “The ’30s, ’40s and ’50s are often talked about as a golden age of public schools. Well, only 10 percent of students were going to college back then,” Goldstein says. “If our goal today is that only 10 percent get to college, then we’re doing awesome.”

Misplaced nostalgia may also weigh on public opinion. Just as elders like to claim they once walked 15 miles in the snow to school, uphill both ways, perhaps they misremember how rigorous their own educations were.

“Going back to at least 1880, the business community has never said a nice word about public schools. Every generation of graduates is supposedly stupider than the last,” says David C. Berliner, a professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University. “The demonization of youth is a national pastime in the U.S.”

Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, argues that schools are also being demonized because of clear-eyed ideology rather than rose-colored nostalgia. “U.S. public education is the victim of a propaganda campaign to discredit it and promote privatization,” she says. She traces this back to the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report from President Ronald Reagan’s education commission and argues that business leaders and politicians have increasingly used public schools since then as scapegoats for other societal ills.

I suspect other, less nefarious factors affect perceptions. With college becoming the norm, workers with no more than a high school diploma are more likely to be in the lower part of the talent distribution today than they were a generation ago. Employers might conflate this shifting composition of high-school-educated workers with a diminishing quality of high school education itself.

The truth is, today’s young people do need more, or at least different, kinds of training and education to succeed in the global marketplace for talent. And plenty of policy changes — like making the most challenging school districts more attractive places to work — could help improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged students. In the meantime, let’s stop denying the measurable, if modest, progress that U.S. schools have made in the last half-century.


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