Mike the Mad Biologist

The discussion of education in the U.S. typically is very weird: it’s one of the few areas where advocates routinely claim how poorly they’re doing. Some of that is an attempt to gain additional funding and support, but a lot of it seems to be propaganda that has taken on a life of its own (and, with the rise of the for-profit school industry, there is also a financial incentive in some quarters). Consider this snippet from a Boston Phoenix editorial reviewing Governor Deval Patrick’s accomplishments:

The sweeping education-reform act Patrick shepherded through the legislature is a real accomplishment. It is a practical investment in the future that gives communities and school administrators most of the tools they need to repair an underperforming educational system.

Massachusetts’ collegiate system is underperforming (although it has some pretty stiff competition). But K-12 education?

No.

I’ve been through this before, but, given the zombie-like beliefs about the U.S. educational system, it’s worth reviewing. If Massachusetts were a foreign country, it would, hands down, perform better than any European country, and as well or a close second (even better, in some cases) than East Asian countries. Year in and year out, Massachusetts’ performance on the NAEP is stellar, particularly when one accounts for childhood poverty (while the state, on average, is wealthy, there are pockets of serious poverty). In fact, Massachusetts does a better job than would be expected given the amount of childhood poverty.

If you want to argue that Patrick’s educational program will make the schools better, that’s fine (I’m not sure I agree though). But to claim that they’re underperforming is just flat out wrong.

Comments

  1. #1 Gill Bates
    March 14, 2010

    “But to claim that they’re underperforming is just flat out wrong.”

    I hate to sound like Bill Clinton, but that depends upon the definition of “underperforming.”

    Underperforming compared to what?

    Compared to what people want, to an ideal or to the “potential” that could be there – then most educational systems everywhere are underperforming.

    When compared to other states or countries there is a different result.

  2. #2 Mokele
    March 14, 2010

    IMHO, the average misses the point – I’d argue that MA (or any other state) is still failing to provide public education if a decent standard of education isn’t available to *all* kids.

    The real obstacle to fixing this is the assinine way property taxes are used to fund only the nearest school, ensuring that rich kids get great schools and poor kids get shitty schools.

  3. #3 BaldApe
    March 14, 2010

    Maybe they are underperforming relative to a fantasy world where every kid is a latent genius, nobody drops out, and every IQ has three digits.

    In my first year of teaching, I was told by the husband of another teacher that the way teachers have it roughest is that we can’t say “Lady, your kid is dumb as a post.”

  4. #4 Quantum Mechanic
    March 15, 2010

    @Mokele — are you from MA?

    First, most poor municipalities get large amounts of state aid earmarked for education. Second, state law sets a floor (“foundation-level spending”) that all municipalities must spend to. Third, while it is true that property taxes are municipality-by-municipality, property taxes go into a municipality’s general fund, so I don’t know what the heck you’re trying to claim with “property taxes are used to fund only the nearest school”.

  5. #5 Nobody
    March 15, 2010

    As long as all children are not above average, our schools are underperforming.

  6. #6 Mokele
    March 15, 2010

    @QM – No, I’m talking about the system I’ve observed in 3 states so far (FL, LA and OH). I applaud MA for trying to move beyond that system, but the fact is that it remains the norm in just about everywhere else.

    More generally, I’m talking about the education debate across the entire country, and the problem with the use of averages – they encourage us to just improve the already-good schools to raise the average, rather than facing the actual challenge of fixing the bad/underfunded schools in order to make good on the promise of equal opportunity.