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US public schools are better than they've ever been

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.
Polls about education in the US quickly find a paradox: most people like their neighborhood schools, but they think education as a whole in the US is going downhill. Everyone thinks their neighborhood school is the exception, not the rule.

Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, makes another argument. He says there's never been a better time to be a student in American public schools, which educate a broader swathe of the population more successfully than ever before. We talked about his argument and about the dominance of the crisis narrative in education. Our conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and length.

Libby Nelson: Why do people in the US think schools are in decline, and why do you argue that they're not?

Jack Schneider: The first reason that people think schools are in decline is because they  hear it all the time. If you hear something often enough, it becomes received wisdom, even if you can't identify the source. That rhetoric is coming from a policy machine where savvy policy leaders have figured out that the way that you get momentum is to scare the hell out of people. So reformers have gotten really good at this sky is falling rhetoric. All you have to do is look at any successful recent reform, whether it's something that they're targeting through courts or through referenda, or through policies like the Common Core, which have been adopted in a very different kind of manner. The rhetoric there is the schools are in crisis, we are competing against nations that are going to somehow destroy us if our test scores aren't high enough, and lo and behold, policymakers have a solution.

The evidence of this is that every year, Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup do this poll where they look at levels of public confidence in the nation's schools, and 50 percent of people give schools in their community — not just the schools their own kids attend — an A or a B. And that's because largely they're not hearing policy elites talk about their schools; they're not hearing the news media talk about their schools. They're hearing about schools in general, and they think "Maybe this doesn't apply to my school." When you ask people about the school attended by their oldest child, so now you're only asking public school parents, then the numbers go even higher in terms of satisfaction. It goes up to about 70 percent A or B.

You ask about the nation's schools, and 70 to 75 percent say the nation's schools get a C or a D.

LN: What contributes to this gap between opinions of local schools and opinions of education as a whole?
pdk schools in own community

JS: What we have here is a disconnect between the lived experience people have and the perception they have. A part of this is just that parents are receptive to this, because parents are more anxious about schools than they have been at any time in American history. This is the context that allows this crazy rhetoric to grab hold of people. It matters more that you get a high school degree, and it certainly matters more that you get a college degree.

Couple that with the fact that people don't have great information about school quality — measuring schools is really hard, not only because we can't pin down exactly what we want schools to do, but because it's hard to separate out the effects of family and neighborhood from schools. And parents can't even do the most basic thing of just going in and watching teachers teach for a week. They'd have to fill out forms and get fingerprinted, and they don't have time. We don't have the time to observe the quality of education that's being delivered in our schools. Parents are then relying on these other measures.

We have test scores which, first of all, don't mean anything on their own to people. Never mind the fact that test scores measure only a tiny of slice of what we want schools to do, and let's ignore a huge fact, which is that test scores tend to tell us more about socioeconomic background than what is being learned in school. Let's say that a school gets an average score of 240 on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. What does 240 mean? It doesn't mean anything. It only means something when you either translate it like New York until very recently did, into an A through F grade, which is going to freak parents out, or if you do the same thing and create norm referencing where you say "This school was in the top 20 percent of schools." All schools could be doing great, and if you group them into quintiles, parents who are in the bottom quintile are going to be like, wow, our school sucks. And that plays a huge part in this.

This all contributes to the idea that our schools are in crisis, and that what we have to do has to be super interventionist. We can't just pursue slow, steady, incremental reform; we need to overturn the system.

LN: So you argue that this isn't the case; that schools are better than they've ever been in the past. Why?

JS: First, they serve far more kids than they ever did before. Kids living in poverty – they're really expensive to educate, and they now get, not an equal education, I would never claim that, but we at least pay lip service to it. We're at least trying. Average per-pupil expenditures aren't where they need to be, but they at least are higher in large urban districts than in other places.

Special education kids, they're really expensive to educate, and prior to 1975, it was like, your kid has special needs? Too bad, keep him or her at home. And those kids have a right to a public school education now. That's amazing. That's a major step forward. English language learners, super expensive to educate and we're getting closer to that. I'm not saying the system is perfect, but we're doing better.

Even though standardized test scores don't measure even a fraction of what we want good schools to do, look at scores over time. Forty years ago, 9- and 13-year-olds were scoring much lower, and let's include the fact that there may have been less diversity in that initial group than there is now. We know that special education students or low-income students or English language learners are going to score lower on tests, so their scores are all going up, on state tests across time, at least on average.

All the evidence points in the direction that we have a fairer and more effective system that is probably more focused on student achievement than it once was.

LN: How old is this crisis narrative?

pdk gallup national grades

JS: I have been trying to figure out what the exact time period is. I've got it down to shortly after World War II. Somebody will read that and say, I have the answer, it's Sputnik! And Sputnik is not the answer. It's complicated, and Sputnik certainly is a part of the answer, but we begin to see some interesting trends in the second half of the 20th century. The president, for instance, never talked about education prior to the Truman administration. If you had any mention at all, it would be in a small speech given to teachers. But you begin to see some emergence of national rhetoric about this.

Yes, the Cold War does present a kind of opportunity for people who either wanted to increase school funding or increase an emphasis on programs for the so-called best and brightest. You see programs like Advanced Placement being founded then. But those are just people taking advantage of an opportunity. It's not like the Cold War obviously called for changes in K-12 education. Education began playing a role in the economy in the second half of the 20th century, so that's a factor.

LN: What were other contributing factors?

JS: I think a huge factor was race. You can't underestimate the fact that at one point, you could send your kids to school knowing that your kids would attend school with people who were just like you. And a lot of people are comforted by that notion. I'm not.

A lot of people worry in a way today that they didn't once worry. "What is the element," is the euphemism I hear sometimes. What they mean by the "element" is are there people who are unlike me. And even though we have pretty segregated schools, the answer is, yeah, those kids get to go to school now! And they get to go to school in the same kinds of schools that everybody else does.

I see some shifts in the second half of the 20th century. If you forced me to pick a day, I'd say it happened sometime in 1950. Sometime between 1950 and 1960.

LN: What role do international comparisons play in this — the idea that we're scoring behind many other countries on international tests in math and science?

pdk gallup poll on PISA

JS: It is one of the most frequently used pieces of evidence in conversations I have with laypeople. They say the schools are in crisis; I say, what makes you feel like the schools need to be fixed? One of the most frequently cited pieces of information in these conversations is, we're just getting crushed in these international comparisons.

I say, OK, tell me one question that's on the PISA (the OECD's standardized tests taken by students in more than 60 countries and economies). And that's where we stop. People don't know a whole lot about it, but it is a nice piece of evidence that confirms this thing they already believe because they've heard it so many times.

There are a lot of people in policy positions and in political leadership who believe that, and I don't think they're being disingenuous. I think PISA is a big part of that. They say, oh my God, we finished 29th or whatever — we didn't finish first on whatever it is. We need to be first. It excites people who don't know what's on the PISA, or why some countries would be doing better.

This tells us that on one narrow snapshot, kids in Shanghai, which happens to be a very affluent city in a country that promotes testing far more than we do, happen to score better on a narrow range of questions than our kids. I'm not sure what the usefulness of any of that stuff really is.

LN: But reformers acknowledge that some public schools are very good, but there is still a persistent concern about achievement gaps. What role do those gaps play in your argument?

JS: I think if what they were saying is there's an achievement gap, there's always been an achievement gap, and it's narrowing but we need to think about why does the gap exist, and let's address those root causes — that would make sense as a conversation. I don't think their hearts are in the wrong place, I think their heads are in the wrong place. For a lot of kids who don't score well on these tests, you go back six generations and you have people in bondage. That's a powerful explanation for why there's an achievement gap. Or you say, let's take a look, correlation is not causation, but let's take a look at the correlation between achievement scores and poverty. There's a really big correlation.

We've got to do something about poverty, we've got to do something about systemic racism — that, to me, is a conversation that makes a lot of sense. Rather than saying let's look at the schools where low-income kids of color go, where the scores are low, and let's do a fake experiment and look at the scores at high-scoring low-income kids of color, and let's look at what their schools do. That's a much less daunting conversation to have. That's a conversation people are much more willing to have.

And if you just look at schools, there's a lot beneath the surface — that maybe they're all low-income kids of color, but they have very involved parents. Or that they don't offer special education or services for English language learners. Things like that aren't really visible when you're just looking at the things they do.

LN: What reforms would you like to see happen?

JS: Let's just figure out how to build capacity in individual schools. I would really love to hear some reformer say, my really big issue is for every school to figure out what it needs to improve and I want to create a system so that school can get the things it needs in order to improve. That's the only thing that I think is scaleable, is talking about how to improve the capacity that schools have to improve themselves. Districts and states can absolutely play a part in that, but this idea that we're going to stumble on some magic solution for schools that we haven't found in the last 200 years is I think pretty shortsighted. Certainly it's simplistic.

Correction: Schneider is an assistant professor of education who studies historical perspectives on education policy, not an assistant professor of history.