Good for Catherine Rampell (boldface mine):
Few consistent tools are available to measure the quality of U.S. education over time; the best we have 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 such as calculus 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.
How this came to be–besides being another case of Things We All Know Yet Are Not True™–has to do, in large part, with a concerted effort by education radicals (aka ‘reformers’) who needed to create a crisis to further their agenda:
Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, argues that the schools themselves are also being demonized, thanks to 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.
The last sentence of that paragraph is critical: many of our economic problems have little to do with education per se–does anyone really think WalMart would pay more if their employees scored higher on exams?–yet education is supposed to solve all of them (I haven’t read Dana Goldstein’s new book, but I’ve read she makes this point).
The real tragedy, as I’ve noted many times before, is that we have real problems: a racial performance gap, an economic gap, a linguistic gap (and the overlap among these factors), as well as a state gap–the latter goes mostly unmentioned in our august educational discourse, but could yield the most clues about how to improve educational outcomes. I can’t help but think that ‘reformers’ ignore these real problems, especially the state-state gaps, because they already know the answer to the problem, even if it’s not the correct problem.
A final point. Rampell describes these gains as “modest, but measurable.” I think that’s understating the case. The test score gains, when broken down by socioeconomic group, are one-third to an entire standard deviation higher than they were in 1978, with the largest gains among the lowest scoring groups. What that means is that the median child (the fiftieth percentile) today would have been between the 63rd and 85th percentile (with 100 being the top percentile) in 1978 in their respective socioeconomic groups. That doesn’t strike me as ‘modest’ at all.
The kids are alright. The parents, on the other hand….