High-Performing Traditional Public Schools are Rare, Really

This is going to be a tough sell, I recognize that. But sadly, this is a very important, painful reality check. My assertion that high-performing traditional public schools are very, very rare flies in the face of some deeply-rooted human tendencies, the first of which is that “best” is widely seen as something that has to be really good. An even bigger likely source of resistance to the sad fact that the dysfunctional “business model” of traditional public schools ensures low efficiency, and likely low performance even in the best-funded schools with the easiest to educate children, is parents’ strong desire to believe that they did right by their children. If we define this aspect of doing right as doing as well as possible within the available choices, most families pass the test. But when best available is shown to be pretty bad for a lot of children, some denial/resistance to the message will set in. That such a message will not produce the voter adulation candidates seek may explain why few, if any, public office-seekers will take on the myth that the better public schools are just fine. The roots of the low performance problem that I keep referring back to exist throughout the public school system, and they are not substantively negated by generous funding by locating a school in a high socio-economic status neighborhood.

But, destruction of this fallacy may be a critical first step in making school system transformation politically feasible. For example, consider Texas school system reform politics. Republicans have held all Texas statewide offices, and have had a super-majority in both houses of the Texas legislature. Yet, there has not even been enough political will to create a top-ranked charter law, much less a noteworthy leveling of the “playing field” between public and private schools. Proposals to do that have been rare, and some of them have not even been voted on, much less enacted. Aggressive public support for universal choice via tuition tax credits, tuition vouchers, or education savings accounts by statewide officeholders has been non-existent. Since it is very rare for the teacher unions to support Republicans and teacher unions are weak in open shop states like Texas, why are many Republicans reluctant to support a strong charter law or universal private school choice? They are kowtowing to survey results that say suburban families think their public schools are great — their realtor assured them it was so — even though the reality is that they are just not as bad as typical inner city public schools. Many legislators are timid — unwilling to confront the myth — and others may believe the “better must mean good” myth. We need legislators willing to attack the myth; fewer of us believing it would make that leadership effort less risky. Until we demolish the myth, legislators will mostly peddle proposals for urban schools, failed schools, and low income families; all premised on the myth that most of the schools serving suburban families work well for the vast majority, and that citizens should gladly pay the $12,000/student/year now spent to achieve those results.

There is plenty of ammunition available. We can start by describing the skills of the roughly top one-third of public school graduates that pursue higher education; high rates of remediation need; low propensity to engage in critical thinking. Ask virtually any professor that teaches entry-level courses at non-elite schools. Consistent with the dysfunctional public school instructional strategy, an in-depth 2007 study of California public schools found no high-performing schools in that state. Even the Beverly Hills’ schools fail to engage a high percentage of their students in high value learning. Can the citizens of other states seriously believe that the same system will produce significantly better results in their states?

Many people will cling to the myth even after being confronted by facts to the contrary. This closing comment from a student in my School System Reform Studies course is an especially good example. They heard more than the bits and pieces of evidence that are widely available, but while acknowledging all of the roots of the low performance problem (I am not denying that our school system has serious deficiencies and needs transformational reform), they nicely articulated some reasons that many people see as proof that there must be a significant number of high performing public schools: 1.) “Our country produces a lot of incredibly bright, innovative young minds.” My response: I allege unacceptably low rates of engagement in high value instruction in our current system, but that doesn’t mean zero engagement, or that our average expenditure of $12,000/student yields no benefits. Many children do well in the public schools, despite those schools, or without any formal schooling (i.e. Abraham Lincoln); 2.) “Our country still leads the world in technological progress when it comes to electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc. We still have the largest collection of prestigious research universities in the world.”  My response:  have you seen/heard the scientists to which you allude; on or off a typical university campus?  Most of them — perhaps a large majority — did not attend US schools. “Could the United States achieve all of these [impressive] things with a school system that is mediocre at best?”  Yes! Also, a good economy doesn’t require many well-educated people, just a diverse array of skilled specialists. Bad policies, not poor skills, are the bigger long-term threat to our economic well-being. If too many people are good at their jobs, but lack general knowledge, they can easily be duped into supporting terrible policies. Thomas Jefferson articulated that concern long ago; “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Universal private school choice would lead to some exodus from the best public schools in America. The best possible one size still does not fit all, and most of the roots of the low performance problem are present everywhere. That’s why we need universal private school choice and a major role for free enterprise in our school system; to find, create, and maintain the mix of instructional approaches that engages a much higher percentage of children in high value learning.

Comments (13)

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  1. JD says:

    Great point. We often simply make comparisons based on what our peers are doing. “Best in the Country” doesn’t mean much if the competition is poor. Instead we should be comparing ourselves against our potential. That is a much harder comparison to make, but it is the correct one.

  2. Sam says:

    I like the quote from TJ. Very true and relevant.

  3. Cory says:

    Can you define “universal private school choice”? It sounds specific.

    • Universal means that eligibility is not limited to sub-groups like low income, special needs, from failed schools, or just to a limited total number of children.

      ‘School choice’ program is a policy that makes it easier to opt out of the assigned public school.

  4. August says:

    I can’t take “Not as Good as You Think” seriously. Look at the fonts! and the graphs!

    But it does have a lot of information.

    • Craig says:

      I can see how that could be distracting, and decrease the studies initial credibility to people, because let’s be honest it looks like a Back to school sale ad, but you are good statistics and facts in the study.