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Five basic lessons on public education (short and long versions)

lessonHere’s a primer on public education for those moments when you are having a discussion about school reform and public education and you need some facts to back up your argument. It was written in the form of five basic lessons by Brian Langley, a physics teacher in suburban Detroit and received a National Milken Educator Award in 2007. He can be reached by email at Langley’s original, available here, has many footnotes and an extensive bibliography.

By Brian Langley


Lesson #1:  Americans think the nation’s public schools are troubled, just not the public schools their kids attend.
Lesson #2:  The U.S. has never led the world on international exams.
Lesson #3:  We are not a country of average students.
Lesson #4:  Teachers are the most important school-related factor, though out-of-school factors matter more.
Lesson #5:  Nothing in education is simple.


The day I officially changed my college track from dentistry to education, I ventured into Barnes and Noble and perused the shelves devoted to my new major.  I switched to education for the opportunity to positively impact the lives of young people, though I admit a small part of me wanted to play a role in “saving education” as well.  I stared at the rows of books realizing I had little idea what needed to be saved let alone how to save it.

For the next decade and then some I focused squarely on improving my classroom.  Like so many teachers, I cared about the world of education swirling around me but the demands of the classroom occupied my time.  Consequently, even after a decade in the teaching profession I still found myself inadequately prepared to intelligently talk about the state of education with similarly uninformed family and friends.  After one of those uncomfortable talks I began a personal quest to decode the confusion of public education for myself.   It has been a revealing three-year effort keeping up with blogs, deconstructing documentaries, highlighting books, examining reports, and bouncing ideas off colleagues.  I have found public education more complicated than I had expected; certainly more nuanced than what is presented in most magazine articles and TV specials.  What follows are five lessons I think I know now and think you should know before engaging in your next conversation on American education.

Lesson #1:  Americans think the nation’s public schools are troubled, just not the public schools their kids attend.

Gallup regularly conducts a poll asking Americans to grade public schools three ways.  First, respondents grade the entire U.S. public school system.  Second, respondents grade only their local public schools.  Third, respondents with children in public schools grade only the public school of the respondent’s child.     Year after year, the results indicate we are a confused nation.

Consider the 2012 results of the survey.  When addressing the first question, a mere

19% of respondents gave an A or B grade to U.S. public schools as a whole.  Certainly this is not good, though the data parallels the conventional wisdom that U.S. public schools are in peril.   The responses are more encouraging when addressing the second question, as 48% of respondents gave an A or B grade to their local public schools.  This suggests that although the public schools are understood to be bad, many people in the U.S. feel their local public schools are not the problem.  This trend continues through the third question.  For respondents  with children in public schools,   77% gave an A or B grade to their child’s public school.  77%!

Gallup has been asking this same series of questions for years and has consistently demonstrated  a  perception  gap.  What  this perception  gap  represents  is anyone’s  guess. Perhaps  people  are  biased  in  favor  of  their local schools.  Perhaps parents simply have low expectations.  Perhaps parents value other aspects of their local school over standardized test scores and similar data often reported.   Perhaps parents see low standardized test scores as more reflective of the child than the school. Perhaps while Americans have seen the test scores and understand problems exist, three out of four parents are pleased, even impressed with the experience provided by their public schools.  Most likely the data reflects a mixture of these options plus more.

We know that the perception of the nation’s public schools as a whole undoubtedly involves information gathered from outside sources: news reports, documentaries, political discourse, etc.  The parental perception of local schools, on the other hand, relies heavily on personal experience.  This data therefore delivers an encouraging correlation:  The stronger one’s relationship with the public school, the more favorable one’s opinion.  This data challenges the current national message portraying the education cup as not just half-full but practically empty.  When it comes to their local schools, most Americans simply aren’t buying the message.  They apparently experience something considerably more positive, though their optimistic perspective remains largely absent from the national dialogue.  Our conversations need more depth.

The perception gap underscores a national lack of understanding concerning the complexities of public education.  We know from what we are told that our nation’s schools are bad, but our experience with our own schools often tells us otherwise.  We need more information.  Let’s dig a little deeper as we investigate international exam data in lesson #2.

Lesson #2: The U.S. has never led the world on international exams.

In 2012 Exxon Mobil supported their National Math and Science Initiative through an advertisement centered on the United States being ranked a below-average 25th in the world on international math exams.  The inspiring ad urges the nation to raise academic standards and “get back to the head of the class.” But the United States has never been “head of the class” on international math exams.  In fact, when looking back to the First International Math Study (FIMS) in 1964, the U.S. ranked 11th out of the 12 participating countries. By January 1992, the U.S. had taken part in three international math surveys and three international science assessments and, in a summary from The National Center for Education Statistics, “fared quite poorly” on each assessment with “scores lagging behind those of students from other developed countries.Today, the popular dialogue suggests the U.S. is fading on international exams while historical analysis suggests the nation is actually improving on these exams. Of course, improvement means we typically finish about average among developed countries (more on that later).

The wrinkle in all this is that the United States has managed to secure its international role as an economic, political, and innovation leader without leading on international exams.  Nearly 50 years have passed since our mediocre showing on the FIMS exam; during that time we have continued to produce test scores trailing other nations, all along warning that these test scores pose a threat to our national future.  Yet 50 years of American prosperity have failed to support such a correlation.

Yong Zhao thinks 50 years of data is enough to consider revising our reaction to international exams.  The University of Oregon professor brings a unique perspective to the conversation.  Born and educated in China, he is a respected scholar on both Chinese and American education.  He views the past 50 years of American prosperity as evidence that the U.S. education system has strengths the international test scores fail to recognize.  In his words:

To meet the challenges of the new era, American education needs to be more American, instead of more like education in other countries.  The traditional strengths of American education – respect for individual talents and differences, a broad curriculum oriented to educating the whole child, and a decentralized system that embraces diversity – should be further expanded, not abandoned.

To Americans who consistently hear of the bad news in education, it may seem inconceivable that what we need is to be more American.  But Zhao indicates other countries, including Asian countries, are embarking on reform paths to do just that.  Consider Singapore as an example, a nation consistently scoring among the top in the world on international math exams.  Singapore’s math reputation is so legendary, the country’s math teaching philosophies and methods have been packaged as a curriculum marketed towards U.S. schools.  Yet even Singapore found something missing from their high test scores, as Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s former Education Minister explained in a 2006 Newsweek interview:

We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy.  There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well – like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition.  Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.  These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.