Are US Public Schools Better Than They Have Ever Been? If So, What Should We Do?


This claim was put forth by in an article headline, which I assume means they support this thesis.

The arguments were provided in interview format by Jack Schneider.

Overall, I agree with Jack that schools in the USA are getting better.

Jack uses two data sources to make his argument: parent perception and NAEP scores.

I find the latter argument much more persuasive than the former.

Parent Perception

Jack notes that families rate 50% of schools in their neighborhoods as an “A” or a “B” – while they only rate 25% of schools across the nation at this same level. He takes this as a sign (I think) that families have an accurate read of their local community schools, but view the nation’s schools as worse off because of all the scare tactics put forth by education reformers.

This strikes me as a weak argument for numerous reasons.

First, it is not a historical argument. It tells us nothing about whether or not schools are better now than they were before.

Second, Jack provides no statistical evidence that parents can accurately rate the schools in their community. In fact, later in the piece, he notes that “people don’t really have good information school quality.”

Then why are using perception as a marker of national school quality?

One could easily create an argument based on cognitive dissonance (“I send my child to this school therefore it can’t be bad”) to make a case for why parents might be susceptible to biases, especially in the absence of easily understandable quality markers, such as letter grades.

Lastly, even if we grant that these measures are useful, are we happy with the idea that families only think 50% of the schools in their communities are a the “A” or “B” level? That would mean that half the kids the community go to subpar schools.

Test Score Data

Jack notes that test score data (I assume he is referring to NAEP) show positive trends.

This is positive news. And it’s why I think are schools are getting better. I also agree with Jack that are public schools are serving a harder to educate student body, which makes these gains even more noteworthy.

Here’s some data:

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 9.43.24 AM

Are We Good Enough? 

Even if we acknowledge that schools have improved, we might still worry that we’re not good enough.

International test data might be one way to measure this.

Jack argues that we shouldn’t be too worked about the fact that many countries outperform us on PISA:

I say, OK, tell me one question that’s on the PISA (the OECD’s standardized tests taken by students in more than 60 countries and economies). And that’s where we stop. People don’t know a whole lot about it, but it is a nice piece of evidence that confirms this thing they already believe because they’ve heard it so many times.

I’m not sure that the fact that someone can’t recite a PISA question is a sound reason to disregard a layperson’s concerns. I also seem to have more faith than Jack that test scores give a lot of meaningful information about student learning.

Overall, I do find PISA performance to be a useful indicator, though there’s not a ton of room here to go into why. I don’t think that a country’s PISA performance tells us all we need to know about the health of the nation (the USA has never scored particularly well, and our economy remains one of the strongest in the world). But, all things being equal, I think the our national outlook would be better if our students were performing better (and we maintained our other national advantages).

That being said, I think we can answer the question “are we good enough?” by looking at our own internal data. Our national college achievement rates are generally flat; are urban school systems produce very low absolute results; and we have real instances of pockets of positive results to demonstrate that this need not be the case.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Jack’s answer:

Let’s just figure out how to build capacity in individual schools. I would really love to hear some reformer say, my really big issue is for every school to figure out what it needs to improve and I want to create a system so that school can get the things it needs in order to improve. That’s the only thing that I think is scaleable, is talking about how to improve the capacity that schools have to improve themselves. Districts and states can absolutely play a part in that, but this idea that we’re going to stumble on some magic solution for schools that we haven’t found in the last 200 years is I think pretty shortsighted. Certainly it’s simplistic.

To be honest, I cannot summarize his argument, because I do not understand it. Taken literally, I suppose it would mean that every school would generate an improvement strategy, and then local and state governments would then support this strategy.

If that is Jack’s argument, I’m highly skeptical it will work.

My thoughts on how we might improve can be found here.

I admit that my solution is untested at scale.

2 thoughts on “Are US Public Schools Better Than They Have Ever Been? If So, What Should We Do?

  1. Pingback: Republicans Are Far More Critical of American Schools Than Democrats -

  2. skeptonomist

    You need to look at aggregated NAEP scores to decide whether student performance is getting worse. Blacks and Hispanics perform worse and the percentage of these students and the schools they attend is increasing. Aggregate performance is therefore probably worse than disaggregated performance, though I doubt it is actually declining. Student performance is actually a different question from school quality, and I think that out-of-school environment is the main control of student performance, but the increasing fraction of schools attended by blacks and Hispanics may be influencing public perception.


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