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.
-Jay P. Greene