The health of education in the U.S.

February 22, 2011

I don’t often write about K-12 education, but I was intrigued today by a piece that Kevin Drum wrote for Mother Jones.  He reports on work by Tom Loveless, a Brookings scholar, debunking the myth that American schools were once the best in the world but now have declined.  Loveless shows that our math scores relative to other relatively affluent countries were even farther behind in the 1960s and that we have been catching up.  We still have a way to go, but the true story appears to quite different from what is widely hawked.

That’s intriguing in itself, but there’s more.  Mike Konczal of Rortybomb notes that for some people, there really isn’t a problem at all because our best 10% (our honors students) do at least as well, probably better, than other countries’ best 10% (their honors students) — and that this is all that counts.

That’s intriguing, too, but it makes me uncomfortable.  Why?  Because I care about everyone’s education, not just the education of the best 10%.  Drum notes “America does a terrible job of educating low-income students.”  He goes on to wonder “Do our low-income kids score worse than other countries’ low-income kids? Or do we simply have more low-income kids?” And he notes that we don’t know: “Since income figures aren’t routinely gathered for these tests, and international comparisons of income are problematic anyway, this isn’t an easy question to answer.”

And Drum concludes with this: “Still, the one metric that’s always crystal clear, no matter who’s doing the measuring, is that school performance plummets when the concentration of low-income kids gets above 50% or so. This suggests — though it doesn’t prove — that the real problem is poverty, not terrible schools.”

I believe (and there’s much evidence to support this) that schools can outperform the dragging effects of poverty.  And we need to help schools do this.  But we also need to recognize how debilitating the predicament of family poverty is for the education of children.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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