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November 12, 2011

Is your child's school “better”?

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

Most parents -- overwhelmingly -- say yes. According to surveys from Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup and Education Next, most parents give their community's school high marks, while only a small percentage deem the nation's schools to be worthy of good grades.

 From the recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll:

The percentage of A’s and B’s that Americans gave to their local schools [is] an all-time high at 51% ...But...only 17% assigned a grade of A or B to the nation’s schools. Not only are the percentages of A’s and B’s low, the percentages of D’s and Fails is increasing.

This conundrum has caused no end of consternation among edu-wonks.

The thinking goes like this: All these parents can't all be right. Either parents are getting a mistakenly bad impression of American schooling from the likes of ed reform documentary Waiting for “Superman" and our lackluster results on international PISA tests, or we are in the thrall of a great delusion that shines a rosy light on our personal experience (all those nice teachers and well-scrubbed children can't be failing, right?), preventing us from seeing the brutal truth: that even our own child's school is not up to par.

A boatload of statistics bolsters the latter view: Proficiency rates in many states are in the toilet, and high numbers of students graduate from high school unprepared for college.  So it's easy to conclude that parents don't bring the same objectivity to their own community's schools that they do to those of the nation.

Scholastic time travel

A recent column by Jon Schnur in Time.com shines a historical light on this parental delusion, helping to explain how parents come to such conclusions.  Schnur notes that it's not that America is in decline, but that we’re stagnating while other nations are racing ahead.  In other words, good enough 25 years ago isn't good enough today.

Given this fact, it's easy to see how parents can judge their child's experience and the nation's schools so differently. When parents look at their own child's education, they naturally compare their kid's experience to their own schooling. But when they think about the nation's education system as a whole, they draw from recent studies, reports, and facts that compare America to other countries. In one comparison, they’re homing in on a very personal and naturally subjective past, and in the other they’re juggling international statistics.   

Where does your child fit in?

The truth is that as parents we don't have the tools to fit the puzzle piece of our child's experience into the bigger picture of our nation's education system.  When I drop my daughter off at her public elementary school, I don't really know how high the school is setting the bar from a global perspective.  As California schools go, it's high performing, well run place and my daughter is doing fine, but would she be struggling miserably at some other school -- say in Shanghai or Finland?  I have no idea.

Few parents or students have an international perspective, though just this morning I spoke to a friend who does. In middle school, she moved from China to the United States.  There, she'd been at the bottom of her class in math. "My teacher used to say, ‘You don't have a head for math.'" Once she arrived in America, though, math class was such a breeze, she began to think of it as her strong suit and throughout her school career she continued to excell compared to her American classmates.

This anecdote may make us wonder about the standards of American schools, but I understand the reasons why it's hard to then make the leap to question the quality of our own child's education. Critiquing our child's school can almost feel like we're discounting their experience.  For instance, if our child adores their teacher, it seems twisted to second guess that teacher's effectiveness.  When it comes to our own child metrics and test scores be damned, what matters is the whole person and their experience, right?

Emotionally that seems right.  The problem is, what happens when we're wrong?




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Divining the true merit of our children's education is hard for my generation of dual-income and blended families. We are already dealing with a certain amount of guilt for not having at least one stay-at-home parent who supervises school, homework, and household responsibilities. We're also struggling with mismatched parenting histories and styles between steps-, halfs- and other joined-by-marriage siblings, many of whom have additional parental influences (outside the immediate household) that don't always share the same academic values and codes of respectful behavior.

But even if you have a stay-at-home parent and a stable, same-parents-for-20-years family, public education has changed a lot since the 1950s when US students were headed to their peak in international comparisons.

For one, we've integrated our schools and attempted to blend centuries of inequality into a single educational experience for all. For another, we've implemented national test comparisons between states, and state test score comparisons between school districts to further expose inequality. And finally, we are dealing with a shift in demographics away from a white, European-descendant majority with similar education and work priorities.

We can vote to spend more on our schools and teachers in order to attain both academic excellence for our most gifted students as well as academic rigor with a wide variety of other electives and sports for the majority of our students. But we can't expect our government to force families to prioritize academic achievement for every student. Prioritizing education and economic success is taught at home, and the US home is changing.

The comments to this entry are closed.


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