School performance

January 20, 2015, National Superintendents Roundtable

Headlines declaring that America’s public schools are failing and that their poor quality poses a national risk have become commonplace. Both political parties tell us that our public schools are in disastrous shape and need drastic change. Two presidents have made educational reform a major goal of their administrations and thrown the power of the federal government behind reforming the educational system. But evidence continues to mount that these efforts may be misguided and based on little or no objective data.

This diagnosis drove the Bush administration’s development of “No Child Left Behind,” enacted in 2001, and led President Obama to put in place “Race to The Top” in 2009. Both embodied a narrow focus on improving educational outcomes with changes within the context of school districts and their schools. They have stimulated a proliferation of standardized testing, development of the Common Core Curriculum, replacing traditional public schools with publically- and privately-owned charter schools, weakening teachers unions, and removing “failing” teachers based on assessments of test-measured results.

John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation, exemplified this logic more than 20 years ago, writing, “Many American critics believe that the major problem with public education today is a lack of focus on results. Students aren’t expected to meet high standards, the argument goes, and the process of education takes precedence over analyzing education results in policy-making circles.”

This has led to the belief that “the country needs to stop this downward spiral and build a better system from the ground up.” But recently released data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that public schools are doing quite well, even when compared internationally. NCES data also indicates that in school year 2011–12, 81 percent of high school students graduated on time with a regular diploma. Hardly the picture of failure that has motivated drastic efforts to build a new national educational system.

A new study recently released by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Round Table, “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect (Indicators of School Inputs and Outputs in Nine Similar Nations),” strongly suggests that this narrow focus is misguided and limits the effectiveness the investments we are making toward educational improvement. “Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.

If we are to improve educational results, we will need a more complex understanding of the factors that affect the educational performance of our children. The HML/NSRT study suggests that we must pay attention to six discrete dimensions related to student performance (equity, social stress, support for families, and support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes). Interestingly, the national policy currently ignores this comprehensive view and focuses very narrowly only on what happens within the confines of the school day and school walls.

Rather than finding American public education as failing, the HML/NSRT study points as our problems strongly resting in factors outside the schools themselves. The “study finds the U.S. has the most educated workforce, yet students confront shockingly high rates of poverty and violence. Research shows that those larger issues, outside the classroom, are serious threats to student learning,” noted HML Executive Director Jack McKay.

When each of the six dimensions is looked at discretely, a more complex reality emerges than the simple picture painted by many educational “reformers”:

  • Economic Equity: “The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.”
  • Social Stress: “The U.S. reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.”
  • Support for Families: “The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.”
  • Support for Schools: “Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.”
  • Student Outcomes: “Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th-grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.”
  • System Outcomes: “The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.”

Recognizing that schools can’t do it alone will require a radical shift in our thinking, but will open our minds to new approaches to improving schools. “Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. To avoid that scoreboard mentality, we need to look at many measures important to shaping our future citizens. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx. In the highly politicized environment that educational policy making now finds itself, the report wisely recommends that we “minimize alarmist rhetoric around schools.”

No one disputes that education is critical to the future of our children as individuals and for us as a nation. Making good decisions about how to spend the almost $1 trillion we spend annually on education is the challenge. Economist Paul Krugman recently cautioned that we should not have high hopes that facts will affect policy. Our children’s fates may rest on that prediction not coming true.—Marty Levine