Do Rich People Know What’s Going On in Their Local Schools?

The savvy, well-heeled people who populate our affluent suburbs are expected to know what is going on.  While texting on their iPhones, they dash about in BMWs and Audis. They choose their homes and neighborhoods with care. Those who send their children to public school settle only for the best.

Not surprisingly, most are happy with what they get. No less than 54 percent of the college-educated, well-to-do respondents to the 2011 Education Next poll said their local schools deserved a grade of an “A” or a “B” on the traditional scale used to grade students.  Only 15 percent of these affluent people gave one of these same grades to the nation’s schools as a whole.  Clearly, the affluent draw a sharp distinction between the problems in American education and the condition of their local public schools.

And, of course, it is true that students in suburban schools perform at a higher level on state tests than do the students attending inner-city schools. That is the kind of comparison usually reported in the daily newspaper.  Just last Sunday, for example, the Boston Globe gave a front-page story to the gap between the performances of Massachusetts students from higher- and lower-income families, a story that highlights inequities within the state but at the same time assures the affluent that all is well at their local schools.

Yet it turns out that many, probably most, of the schools in affluent neighborhoods deserve no better than a “C.”  In a just-released Education Next article, “When the Best is Mediocre,” Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee report that students in even allegedly high-speed suburban schools are only mediocre in math when their performance is compared to students in other developed countries.   Beverly Hills and Palo Alto, California: Ann Arbor and Grosse Pointe, Michigan: Plano, Texas; Evanston, Illinois; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia:  None of them do much better than the international average.

To uncover those dramatic findings, the two University of Arkansas researchers linked performance on state tests administered under No Child Left Behind to performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and then linked NAEP performance to performance on the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which are taken by students in developed countries around the world.  The linking is imaginatively done, though it requires a few assumptions with which others may quarrel. (Details are provided in this appendix to the study.)

Still, it is my bet that the Greene-McGee findings have a better chance of withstanding scientific attack than does the recent Swiss report that neutrons travel faster than the speed of light.

One fact is beyond dispute:  The speed with which American young people, even the most talented of them, are learning their mathematics and science is much too slow. One wonders how many 15-year-olds in the United States have any idea of how fast light travels, the time it takes for light to reach the earth from the sun, or the number of light-years it takes to cross the galaxy in which we live.

-Paul E. Peterson

NB:  The full study, “When the Best is Mediocre,” can be found here.

The Global Report Card, which includes results for over 13,000 school districts, is available here.

The methodological appendix for the study appears here.

An interview in which Jay Greene discusses the findings with Ed Next’s Marty West is here.

And a video in which Jay Greene explains the Global Report Card can be found here.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College