It’s Not All About Poor Kids

Education reform has really focused on improving the quality of education for our most disadvantaged students.  This focus is not entirely without reason, since large, urban school districts serving low-income students are clearly dysfunctional.

But this nearly exclusive focus on improving the education of the poor has concealed the sub-par education being provided in many of our most affluent school districts.  As the new article Josh McGee and I wrote for Education Next shows, suburban public school districts may look good when compared against their urban neighbors, but when compared with students in 25 other developed countries many affluent suburbs barely keep pace.  That is, our best is often mediocre.

If the children of affluent suburbanites want to maintain their parents’ high standard of living, they need to be performing near the top relative to student overseas with whom they now have to compete for high-paying jobs in an increasingly globalized economy.  Doing better than the kids in big city school districts should provide suburbanites with little comfort.

But this is precisely the comparison we encourage suburbanites to make.  State accountability testing shows suburban districts doing better than the rest of the state, which consists largely of big urban districts.  Policymakers and reformers talk endlessly about the “achievement gap,” highlighting how much worse low-income and minority students are doing.  As Rick Hess recently noted, “our achievement gap mania” has stifled the innovation we need to improve education across the board.

It’s an old saying in public policy that “programs for the poor are poor programs.”  The same is true in education.  If we focus exclusively on improving the education in big cities we fail to engender the support education reform needs from suburban elites if it is to be successful.  As long as suburbanites think that education reform is something for those poor kids in large urban districts, they will never fully commit to the kind and scale of reform that is really needed to improve things in big cities as well as everywhere else.  They’re afraid to muck up what they think is a successful education system for their own children.

As our new Education Next piece shows, this suburban complacency is not well-founded.  Suburbanites need education reform for the sake of their own children and not just for the poor kids in the big cities.  If suburban elites commit to education reform for their own children,we may finally get improvement for low-income kids in the cities as well.

Student achievement in virtually every one of the nearly 14,000 public school districts in the United States compared to students overseas can be found at The Global Report Card’s interactive web site.  With the support of the George W. Bush Institute, we’ve been able to provide this information so that everyone can look up their own and other districts to see that the need for education reform is not confined to big cities.

7 Responses to It’s Not All About Poor Kids

  1. Daniel Earley says:

    Indeed. As history has shown ad nauseum… wake up the natural self-interest of the voting class and the uphill battle soon tips into a downhill avalanche. Gravity being our friend (aka reality), it’s about time we dangle the right carrot for the voting masses. Well done!

  2. Bob Griffin says:

    Great product. Good confirmation that we have one of the most expensive mediocre school districts on the west coast.

  3. Doug says:

    Sounds a lot like pretty dubious math to try to make a political point that affluent suburbs defend public education against their best interests.

    Sad, seems like the reform movement cannot convince the middle class that they are getting a bad education becuse they are quite aware that they are not. They have only one question. Is my kids getting into a good selective college? The answer is yes, end of story.

  4. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:

    The bureaucratic education system pits groups of students against each other, competing for money while assuming that more funding is correlated with a higher quality education.

    The antiquated system needs to be transformed from the grassroots up with legislative support to accomplish this goal. Government or corporate driven “reforms” are suspect, as the status quo of control stays with government or is transferred to the corporate realm, neither of which will properly focus on individual children. Power and greed are strong motivators.

    Thus transformation must come from grassroots involvement.
    Innovation, parental and community participation can be unleashed, something the status quo is incapable of accomplishing.

  5. […] to what Hess (and others such as the otherwise esteem-worthy Jay P. Greene) may think, the focus on stemming achievement gaps has not been exacerbated the nation’s […]

  6. Tim says:

    That is one outstanding “Mean Gene” Okerlund impersonation by Dr. Costrell.

    While I’m not quite as skeptical as commenter “Doug,” I can’t help but notice that the comparison group is overloaded with hardcore European or European-style social democracies with cradle-to-grave universal healthcare, high levels of taxation and unionism, low Gini coefficients, and so forth. What exactly is the threat here? You can’t go an hour without hearing that these sorts of countries are destined to fail, Barack Hussein Obama, etc.

    On the other hand, there’s this: “The previous section developed a procedure by which we can compare individual districts across state boarders.” If the disease has already infiltrated high-end graduate departments of education reform, then maybe I better grab my “The End Is Near” sign and hop on the next train to New Canaan.

  7. George Mitchell says:

    Doug alleges the math is “pretty dubious” and chooses not to elaborate.

    Tim “can’t help but notice” aspects of the comparison group that don’t disprove Greene and McGee. And, for what it’s worth, “some of these sorts of countries” are failing right before our eyes.

    The national school choice movement needs to look carefully at the emerging data and reconsider its strategy. Support for choice limited to low-income families has resulted in programs that don’t exploit the true potential of choice.

    Greene,, Peterson,, Hess, and others are making a huge contribution to the discussion.

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