The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How are America’s public schools really doing?

Students, parents, and teachers fill a hallway at Blix Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash., on Sept. 17, the first day of classes following the resolution of a teachers strike. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

It’s hard to find a public official today who, when talking about public schools, doesn’t talk about what a mess they are. Failing.

Some of them are, in fact, failing kids.

This piece, written by Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the author of “Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality,” takes a look at the broad question of how public schools are doing. He co-hosts the education policy podcast “Have You Heard” and is writing a book about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the broader push to dismantle public education. Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian

‘A Nation at Risk’ demanded education reform 35 years ago. Here’s how it’s been bungled ever since.

By Jack Schneider

How are America’s public schools doing? The question is a fundamental component of any contemporary education policy discussion. Yet it is also notoriously difficult to answer. With nearly 100,000 schools spread across roughly 13,000 districts, the scale of the enterprise is beyond what any set of individuals can see and experience.

Despite this challenge, one answer has emerged over the past 40 years: American schools are failing. Beginning with the “Back to Basics” movement of the 1970s and reaching a fever pitch with the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” rhetoric about public school performance grew progressively more negative until it hit its stride during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. Today, pessimistic policy talk is now so standard as to constitute a form of truth. The crisis in public education is seemingly self-evident.

Yet the emergence of this popular belief may illustrate the triumph of rhetoric rather than an actual shift in school quality. Consider, for instance, the steep decline of confidence in America’s public schools between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, when very little substantive change actually took place inside classrooms. In 1975, 62 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll indicated that they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in America’s public schools. By 1983, that figure had dipped to 39 percent and has not risen again above 50.

Throughout the 1990s, public confidence lingered in the high 30s, peaking at 40 in 1995 and 1997, and remaining in the 30s throughout the first decade of the 21st century. New lows were established in 2007 and 2008, as the failures of No Child Left Behind began to clearly reveal themselves, before confidence fell to 29 percent in 2012, the year the federal government began issuing waivers from NCLB’s accountability mechanisms. the figure fell to 29, then to an all-time low in 2014, at 26 percent.

If the nation’s public schools had actually declined in quality, this slide in public perception would be warranted. In fact, it might be perceived as a healthy democratic response indicative of engaged citizens.

Yet evidence does not support such a view.

Although comprehensive standardized testing did not begin until the passage of No Child Left Behind, the federal government has been tracking student performance for half a century through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The NAEP is not taken by every student or given every year. And, like other standardized tests, it is fairly narrow in what it measures — focusing chiefly on basic academic skills and processes. Still, NAEP results over the past several decades are hardly illustrative of a decline in school quality. In both reading and math, and across all three age groups — 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds — scores are higher today than they were in the early 1970s.

Of course, standardized test scores offer only a snapshot of school performance. They tell us nothing, for instance, about how engaged students are in class, how much they value learning, how they are developing as citizens, and how socially and emotionally healthy they are. It is perhaps indicative of national policy priorities that we have archives stuffed with standardized test results, but very little longitudinal data on the many other things we want our schools to do.

That said, some evidence of comprehensive school performance does exist. Each year, the Phi Delta Kappan poll asks Americans to rate the quality of their children’s schools. If, in fact, the quality of public education had declined year after year, parents would almost certainly have taken notice. Yet the PDK poll indicates fairly consistent rates of satisfaction, with roughly 70 percent of parents giving their children’s schools an “A” or “B” grade each year the question has been asked.

Some have suggested that parents are under-informed about the performance of local schools. Research, however, indicates that parents have a strong sense of how their children are doing relative to peers in other schools.

It seems, then, that abstract perceptions of schools — the nation’s schools — have suffered, while satisfaction with actual schools remains fairly constant. Today, roughly one-third of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s public schools — a massive falloff from the early 1970s, when nearly two-thirds expressed such positive views. Meanwhile, nothing appears to have changed for the worse.

What is causing this? Some have hypothesized that this is a part of a broader decline of faith in institutions. But more Gallup polling indicates that faith in institutions has not evenly declined over this period. Confidence in Congress has certainly plummeted, but it has soared for the military and for small businesses, and it has been relatively steady for organized labor and the police.

Instead, it seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality. For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education. In 1983, the authors of “A Nation at Risk” claimed: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Signing NCLB into law in 2002, President George W. Bush spoke of a need to “free families from failure in public education.” And in a recent address, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lamented the fact that, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment, “the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math.”

Politicians are not alone. Policy advocates and philanthropists routinely decry the state of American public education, generally as a prelude to their prescribed reforms. The XQ “Super School” project, for instance — a venture funded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs — explained its objective by making the case that we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.” One can’t even open a book about education without being told how bad things are. A quick search on the Google Books Ngram Viewer indicates that the likelihood of encountering the phrase “failing schools” was 100 times greater in 2008 than it was in 1975.

This rhetoric has been galvanizing for highly interventionist reform efforts. Every year, billions of federal and philanthropic dollars are channeled into school reform, and every president since George H.W. Bush has made education an administrative priority.

The irony, however, is that most schools may not need reforming. No school is perfect, of course. And there are many that require our attentions and investments. But sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools — the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding.

So, how are America’s schools doing?

In most cases, just fine. Better than ever.

But America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. Our schools are simultaneously an embrace and a refusal, revealing exactly who is included and who isn’t. Most of us can say our children are getting a great education. Yet whose children are “ours”? What do they look like? Where do they rest their heads at night?

Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Perhaps, then, a reset is in order. Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline — a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility — we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works. It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.