Student Achievement Opinion

The Hidden Logic of American Underachievement

Parents care less about academic achievement than you might think
By Chester E. Finn Jr. & David M. Steiner — February 26, 2019 5 min read
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We see profound cultural and structural obstacles to large-scale improvement in the performance of U.S. education and, sadly, little reason to expect them to disappear.

Two aging books previewed these barriers: Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and Diane Ravitch’s The Schools We Deserve (1985). The former argued that Americans are utilitarians at heart with little use for learning per se, much less for academic excellence; the latter contended that Americans stick with the schools they have because deep down they don’t want any other kind.

The United States never embraced a national approach to education. Local variation is extensive; at one point, the country contained 110,000 school districts. When educators came to largely agree about constructivist rather than traditionalist learning, divides continued; no longer comfortable with a “set curriculum,” many schools emphasized skills at the expense of core content. This, despite ample evidence that the performance gap is in large part a knowledge gap. One becomes a good reader only with cumulating increasing knowledge about the world—its geography, history, literature, and science.

At the same time, despite evidence of systemic mediocrity or downright failure, most parents are content with their own children’s schools and trust their teachers. When making choices, parents understandably want schools that are convenient, safe, and welcoming—schools that offer reassurance about caring for the whole child. For many families, academic performance isn’t a high priority.

We wonder: Would providing parents with transparent data about their children’s school’s performance dent their satisfaction, or would it generate even deeper mistrust of test results?

Parents’ relative indifference to student performance is bolstered by inflated course grades—even when teachers report on surveys that many of their students are ill-prepared for grade-level work, and even when state assessments betray lackluster performance. For middle-class parents in particular, it is preferable to believe the A-minus grade rather than “below proficient” on some remote state test. Nor do lofty report card grades make much real-world difference for many children: Most U.S. colleges and universities eagerly accept all who apply so long as they meet minimal course-credit requirements, although remediation upon arrival is often the consequence.

There is a certain logic, therefore, to underachievement in American schools. It is unwittingly nurtured by a culture of pragmatism and local control, the economic and political constraints that limit parents’ choices among schools, the comfort of high grades (and attacks on testing), and—despite widespread evidence of student boredom—the general conviction that learning mustn’t be too taxing.

If the structure and culture of education reinforce the status quo, where might we find the impetus for dynamic reform?

One place might be education research on best practices. Sometimes this works. Early-reading results did improve in the wake of solid research findings about phonemic awareness and early literacy. Too often, however, education research is removed from practice, and researchers themselves generate conflicting mixed messages: Would spending more money create big improvement? “Yes,” says Kirabo Jackson. “No,” says Eric Hanushek. Do charter schools help student achievement? “Not really,” says Stanford’s CREDO, surveying the whole country. “Yes, really,” says the same organization about some charter-management organizations and urban charters. Should tests be downgraded in favor of other measures such as social and emotional intelligence? “Not really,” says Dan Goldhaber. “Yes,” say Dan Koretz and Tony Wagner.

Despite evidence of systemic mediocrity or downright failure, most parents are content with their own children's schools and trust their teachers.

A second source of progress could be the system itself. After all, teachers, principals, superintendents, and state leaders seek stronger learning outcomes. We can point to recent examples in places like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida’s Duval County, now intently focused on quality curricula and expert instruction. Yet failure to move outcomes substantially is far more the rule than the exception. Each layer in education’s governance hierarchy—the principal, the district office, the teachers’ unions, state education departments, the legislators and governors, the federal government—can block changes initiated by any other level and blame setbacks on them, too.

Education reformers face a daunting task. It doesn’t help that, after an era that displayed much common purpose, they’ve now realigned into oppositional groups—like the rest of the country.

One argues that serious progress will not be made until we address underlying economic and social inequalities, supply more funding for district schools, especially in the inner cities, and confront the latent racism reflected in disparate test scores.

The second group calls for fundamentally altering the structure of public education by dismantling the district apparatus and empowering parents to choose educational pathways for their children—whether via vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts.

Both views have merit, yet both vastly underestimate the power of culture. For culture, above all, is what explains the fact that many nations with heterogeneous populations do better by their children than the United States—and do so neither by spending more money nor by abandoning public education.

What those countries have that America lacks are three key elements: a culture that values learning; a conviction that parents, schools, and children themselves share joint responsibility for that education; and a governance arrangement designed for unimpeded and continuous improvement across the delivery system.

It’s still possible to imagine conditions that might accelerate the glacial pace of education change in the United States. Urgency among minority families in New York City and elsewhere has shaken the status quo; we need more widespread and intensified pressure. The key is the middle class: As the meager achievement of its children proves ever less adequate to replicate the economic lifestyle of their parents, and as those young adults return to the nest because they cannot afford to buy homes of their own, complacency may give way to worry.

Political leadership counts, too: Here the answer lies less at the federal level—Washington’s voice in education is suspect from the start—than in state-level leadership of the kind we once saw in Massachusetts and Florida and see recently in Louisiana and Tennessee. When the economic consequences of a mediocre education face millions of households, an honest, tough conversation with the parents of the United States may become not only necessary, but possible at last.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as We Are Stuck. Is There a Route Out?


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