THE BLOG

Public Schools Are Overachievers. No, Really

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Gerald Bracey Fellow at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University

This blog reprises some already reported data, then adds a bunch of new material.

A 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, the statistical arm of the U. S. Department of Education found that private schools have higher NAEP test scores than public schools. It also found, though, that private schools have more rich kids and fewer poor kids, fewer special education students, fewer English Language Learners, and fewer minorities. When NCES adjusted for these differences, the publics did just as well and in some cases better than the privates.

These results caused grave consternation within the Department, coming as they did just as Secretary Spellings was proposing to give students vouchers they could use to attend private schools. Why bother, reporters wanted to know. The Department soon announced that it would no longer conduct studies that carried such heavy political baggage. (One can only imagine that the Department commissioned the study in the first place because it never imagined the results would turn out the way they did).

Now two more studies show that when you take into consideration what handicaps the kids bring to schools, the performance of the schools borders on the miraculous. One study, by UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center ranked twenty-one developed nations on six dimensions of childhood well being. The United States finished 20th, exceeded, if that is the word, only by the U. K.

Although 21 countries had sufficient data to be ranked on all six dimensions, there were other countries that could be ranked on only some. Among 25 nations, the U. S. finished dead last in child poverty, 24th in infant mortality, and 22nd in low birth weight rate.

Ironically, America's highest ranking came on "educational well-being," which is formed of the sub-dimensions of test scores, educational attainment, and transition to work. We got up to 12th place on that one (our next best was material well-being, 17th).

The media, who pounce on international studies involving test scores, overwhelmingly ignored this report which played well in Brunei, Georgia, Seychelles and Thailand as well as Europe. The British media indicted both Prime Minister Tony Blair and incoming PM, Gordon Brown for the "shameful" state of Britain's children.

If you're a kid, you want to find a way to head to the Netherlands, Switzerland, or any of the Scandinavian countries.

A second report, Homeland Insecurity...American Children at Risk, provides details that the UNICEF report lacks. For instance, infant mortality in the U. S. is 20% higher than in Canada and 100% higher than in Japan. The birth rate of females 15-19 is 49 per 1000, double that of the next highest country, the U.K., and 12 times higher than Japan's rate of 4 per 1000.

The report ranks states and--surprise!--these rankings look very much like states' ranking on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The states with, say, the lowest child poverty rates are those with the highest NAEP scores while those with the most kids in poverty have the lowest NAEP scores.

Outside of the reports was the scandalous story of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland youth who died because his mother couldn't find the means to have his infected tooth extracted (about $80) and it infected his brain. This was not a sob story about a single kid. Washington Post reporter, Mary Todd, wrote that only about one third of Maryland children on Medicaid received any dental care in 2005. In Virginia and the District of Columbia, the figures were even lower.

Most of us can imagine what it would be like trying to learn to read in such pain. As Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) introduced their Children's Dental Health Improvement Act, they observed that dental decay is five times more common than asthma which is epidemic in some urban areas an a known detriment to school achievement.

Poor kids have other hurts than their teeth. That child who doesn't seem to pay attention in class might have suffered repeated bouts of media otitis--he might not actually hear what the teacher is saying. Treatment renders media otitis harmless, but a lot of poor children don't get treatment and repeated bouts can do permanent damage. Similarly, untreated visual problems cause an unknown number of reading difficulties which have nothing to do with phonics or comprehension. Lead poisoning, which gums up the neurons, remains a national scandal.

American students in low poverty schools outperform the top nations in international comparisons of reading, mathematics and science. The low performance of kids in impoverished schools is often attributed to poorly trained teachers with low expectations. No doubt that is true in some places. No doubt, though, the scores those teachers do obtain are often amazing under the circumstances. We need to change those circumstances.