When the Best is Mediocre

Unfailingly, Americans express distain with America’s
underperforming public education system, while simultaneously raving about the
education their own children receive from it. This new analysis by Jay
Greene and Josh McGee takes a hatchet to that comforting illusion—showing that
even wealthy suburban schools aren’t up to snuff in world terms. Working
with the George W. Bush Institute, the two compared math and reading performance
of nearly every U.S. school district to its respective state, the nation, and
then also to other developed countries. The upshot: Complacent suburban parents
should start getting a little angry at the state of our education system. None
of America’s affluent, overwhelmingly white districts perform at a level that
would place them in the top third of developed nations. And many do
considerably worse: In math, ritzy Beverly Hills scores at the 53rd percentile
relative to other developed nations, despite the fact that the scores from
those countries include non-affluent schools. And posh Evanston, IL finds
itself in the 48th percentile. (If you’re interested in seeing how your own
district matches up, check out the report’s accompanying “Global Report Card,”
an interactive online database of all the report’s findings.) To be sure, the analytic
methods used here, while inventive, are shaky, as Greene and McGree
acknowledge. They had to compare scores on different tests taken by students of
different ages—and couldn’t mute all the statistical “noise” generated by these
discrepancies. The question is: Do suburban parents want to wait for more
rigorous data to become available before acknowledging that they, too, have a
school problem?

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Jay's and Josh's report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee, “When
the Best is Mediocre
,” Education Next,
Vol. 12, No. 1 (Winter 2012).

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