International Opinion

Public Schools: Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

By Malbert Smith III, Jason Turner & Steve Lattanzio — October 09, 2012 4 min read
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This year, Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions survey revealed a disheartening lack of faith in U.S. public schools. The percentage of participants indicating “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public K-12 education fell to an all-time low of around 29 percent—a drop of 29 percentage points from 1973, when Gallup first began including public schools in its survey and public confidence in schools measured 58 percent.

Unfortunately, faith in the public schools has been steadily eroding since 1973. But are things really this dismal?

We recently mapped performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and high school dropout rates against the backdrop of public confidence in education. As our analysis illustrates, performance data on these dimensions is improving while public confidence is declining. In fact, NAEP scores for both 4th and 8th grade have been trending upward since the 1970s. Compared with an average scale score of 219 in 1973 for 4th graders, 2008’s average scale score of 243 represents significant progress in math performance. (See charts below.)

Dropout rates are worth a look, too. While the U.S. high school dropout rate remained stubbornly anchored in the double digits for two decades, by 2005 it was reduced to less than 10 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which defines dropouts as 16- to 24-year-olds not enrolled in school who have not completed a high school program. As of 2010, the dropout rate had decreased to 7.4 percent, by nces estimates. Obviously, we have made remarkable progress over the past 20 years.

Faith in the public schools has been steadily eroding since 1973. But are things really this dismal?"

So why has public confidence in public schools been sliding down for almost 40 years? One explanation is that Americans have become more cynical. Consider this: With the exception of the military, the police, and small business, most institutions have seen precipitous drops in public confidence, according to Gallup.

An even more compelling reason is the growing awareness of our place on the international stage. When seen through the prism of international educational progress, U.S. students appear to be making incremental gains in some areas and losing ground in others.

A review of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study data reveals that the absolute score in mathematics for U.S. 8th graders rose only slightly (from 500 to 508) from 1995 through 2007. Meanwhile, in 1999, the United States ranked a disappointing 19th on TIMSS out of 38 participating nations. Although we jumped to a promising ninth place among 48 nations in 2007, the United States can no longer say it leads the world in education.

In reading, the emerging trend is not encouraging. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found that in 2001, U.S. 4th graders earned an average scale score of 542. By 2006, that score actually dropped a bit, to 540, and our rank among participating nations dropped from ninth place in 2001 to 12th place in 2006 out of 28 nations.

In light of all this, while public education has sent out green shoots of educational progress, these budding indicators often go unnoticed. But there are hopeful developments that deserve attention.

One major positive turn came with the adoption by all but four states of the Common Core State Standards. Retaining our nation’s competitiveness among our international peers requires serious educational reform and a more rigorous and standardized curriculum, and the common core will address that. The second critical step will be implementing the common core. Adoption will require rigorous and dedicated focus throughout education.

A third step must be taken by our political leaders, who would do well to point to some of our academic successes. It is worth remembering that many countries continue to send their students to our shores to study in an atmosphere of American ingenuity and creativity.

A fourth step rests with educators, the people most likely to possess a deep-seated belief that all children can learn and that education makes a difference in individual lives and to society as awhole. It is critical that our performance match our beliefs. Educators must be realistic about the need to improve our educational system while simultaneously helping the public celebrate the improvements we have made.

Still, today, almost all players along the educational food chain—from teachers to principals to local superintendents and state schools chiefs—feel assailed on all sides. The accumulation of negative news reports and the labeling of teachers and schools as failures do little to provide a conducive environment for productive change.

The adage that one can choose to see the glass as half empty or half full is undeniably applicable here, and, unfortunately, the public has come to see the education glass as half empty. But while we should continue to have candid conversations about the areas we need to improve, let us also not hesitate to point to our many successes as these green shoots of progress take root.


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A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Public Schools: Glass Half Full or Half Empty?


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