A major news magazine proclaimed it clearly with a splashy, bold-faced and front cover statement: “Crisis in education.” Inside, stories went on to highlight the lack of competitiveness of American schools compared to other countries around the world. The articles told the story that because of poor academic performance and a lack of focus in the areas of math and science, doom was all but certain for the American economy, our military security and our very way of life.
The year was 1958. The periodical was Life magazine.
The narrative that the American education system is an abject failure and that its shortcomings portend national calamity is nothing new. Seemingly every decade, this bogeyman is re-conjured up to generate fear and drive forward the latest round of education reform legislation.
THE SECRET OF AMERICAN SUCCESS
If we accept the premise that American schools are inextricably linked to the American economy, security and way of life, then let’s consider the record.
• Even in the wake of the Great Recession, the economy of the United States remains the largest, most diverse and most robust in the world.
• The world’s economic markets hinge on decisions made in the United States.
• The United States military is the most sophisticated and adept fighting force in all of human history.
• The United States is heavily involved in every major global political decision.
• In terms of innovation, one must add all the patents from the entire world together to equal those generated in the United States in a single year.
• The United States has amassed more Olympic medals than any other nation, nearly double more than the next closest competitor.
• Of Nobel Prize winners, there are nearly three times as many from the United States than any other country.
• According to the Academic Ranking of World Universities, of the top 20 universities in the world, 17 of them are in the United States.
In light of all these successes, how is it possible that the education system in our country is such a failure? Yet, I’ve never heard an educational critic raise or acknowledge any of these points.
Perhaps we need to turn to results from standardized test scores to see if our schools are, in fact, failing. Looking at scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has been measuring state-to-state American academic performance since the early 1970s, achievement levels in the United States have never been higher.
It is true that American schools are not the same as those most of today’s adults attended — NAEP results indicate schools today are actually far better.
In the 1980s, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued “A Nation at Risk,” to again sound the alarm of bad public schools. It was widely publicized and formed the modern foundation of the negative perception about schools. It was remarkably free of facts and solid data. It also misread the statistical data it used to make its claim. Here’s how: Standardized test scores for every economic and ethnic group of students improved during the period being studied. But, the number of students taking the tests expanded greatly, with more expansion in disadvantaged student groups. Because disadvantaged students perform worse as a group than richer students, and their numbers increased faster than rich students, it brought the overall average down.
Let’s say you have 250 affluent kids scoring 100 and 250 poor kids scoring 70. The average is 85. Demographics shift. Now you have 100 affluent kids scoring 105, and 500 poor kids scoring 75. The average is 80. Both groups improved their average, but the demographic shift brings the collective average down.
We see that same phenomenon here. Our affluent kids rank among the highest in the state. Our disadvantaged kids outperform their peers in the state, too. But, the demographic shift we’ve experienced is faster growth in the disadvantaged group, which brings our collective average down, even though both groups have positive growth.
This also gets at the national problem: A majority of students in public schools in the South and West are low-income for the first time in the past 40 years. Nationally, 22 percent of children in the U.S. live below the federal poverty line. Nearly half live in low-income families that struggle to meet basic needs. Here, 43 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunches, a common indicator of poverty. We can’t make this an excuse for why our schools can’t be better, but neither can we ignore the demographic shift.
Statistical misread aside, arguably the best international assessment measure is the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is administered to students in 65 nations and territories across the globe. Compared to other international systems on the Programme for International Student Assessment, the United States delivers mediocre results. Rather than meltdown in a frenzy of panic, this should cause us to ask some questions about the performance of our system in comparison with other global systems.
Those systems at the top of Programme for International Student Assessment tables represent very different cultures, geographic regions and contexts. Considering that two top performers are Singapore and Finland, it would be easier to identify how different they are instead of how similar.
But, a close examination of the practices used in these systems shows a remarkably similar set of approaches. This same set of approaches has been used in practically every high performing system on earth, including the most successful systems here in the United States.
It is simply not the case that schools in the United States are failing or that they have gotten worse. Rather, the pace of improvement in many international education systems has far outshined the rate of improvement in the United States.
AMERICAN POLICY MISFIRES
Paradoxically, many of the politically driven reforms in the United States have taken us in a completely different direction than what we see in global high performers. We’ve chosen accountability, punishment, testing and school choice as improvement strategies. An attempt to blame, shame and intentionally disrupt the education system into improvement seems odd, even at face value.
No high performing system has ever achieved sustainable and systemic greatness following this path.
If we want to be among the best performing school systems on earth, then a good start would be to emulate and adapt those practices employed by leading education systems.
Intentionally turning away from mean-spirited and disruptive approaches, we are focused on quality instruction to high academic standards. Rather than laying blame at the feet of our educators, we are working to appreciate and support them while hiring top national talent for our open positions. And, rather than ignoring poverty as a central reason for educational challenges, we are working with other groups in our community to build a system to support students surviving in poverty.
The American education system is far from a failure, but it can — and must — get much better than it is today. We can learn important lessons for how to accomplish that greatness by learning from some of the world’s best performing education systems, which is exactly the approach Eagle County Schools is taking.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.