The Hidden Crisis in American Education
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By Kerri Briggs
Much of the debate about American education reform centers on the inner city. It's widely understood that astonishingly few students from low-income urban schools are graduating equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st Century economy.
What is less understood is that America's education problems aren't confined to poor, urban areas. Students in the wealthiest parts of the country are suffering from lagging achievement as well. Parents often believe that all they need to do to give their children a great education is move to an affluent suburb. They're wrong.
This is the hidden crisis in American education. Schools in affluent areas look good compared to the worst-achieving schools in the country. But that's a limited picture. With globalization and current trends in immigration, students from affluent schools will be competing for high-quality jobs against the best and brightest from all over the world.
That's why the George W. Bush Institute put together a "Global Report Card." We compiled a data set on math and reading skills for almost every school district in the country and compared it with student achievement in 25 other developed nations, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore.
The results are not good. Of the 50 wealthiest school districts in the nation, nearly a third ranked below the international average in math skills.
Take Richmond County, Georgia, home to the prestigious Augusta Country club, which just hosted the Masters Golf Tournament. Richmond County students rank in the bottom fourth internationally in math achievement, and near the bottom third in reading.
Or look at Yorba Linda, California. The birthplace of Richard Nixon, Yorba Linda is the ninth-wealthiest school district in the country, with a median household income of nearly $90,000. These students have ample advantages that those in poor, inner-city schools do not.
Yet math scores show that the average Yorba Linda student only outperforms 43 percent of students in the average developed economy.
Sunnyvale and San Jose are the heart of Silicon Valley. But these wealthy enclaves aren't educating their children to inherit their prosperity. Two-thirds of international students do better in math than the average Sunnyvale and San Jose student.
Sugar Land, Texas is one of the country's fastest growing cities. It's also the 19th-richest. Energy, engineering, and high-tech firms have flocked there. But Sugar Land's students are also below the international average in math achievement.
The best way for public policymakers to address the suburban school crisis is to preserve and bolster accountability measures. The districts need to feel pressure to improve. And if they don't, parents need to be empowered to send their children elsewhere.
That was the insight behind No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President George W. Bush's landmark education bill. It installed serious consequences for schools that repeatedly failed to reach specific goals.
NCLB created clear achievement benchmarks that schools must meet and required regular evaluations. Student achievement data has to be reported publicly and in a form parents can easily understand.
This formula can help suburban schools improve. Unfortunately, there's a major effort to weaken NCLB. The Department of Education has actually waived some of the law's requirements for 34 states plus the District of Columbia, and another 10 states have requests under review.
Under NCLB, schools that underperform for two years in a row suffer consequences. These waivers eliminate those consequences for most schools. Only those in the bottom 15 percent would still be held accountable to NCLB standards.
Of course, it's good that these waivers still keep some schools honest. But exempting the vast majority means that many low-performing schools can continue to operate consequence-free. Only the very worst are still under the microscope. Plenty of students will remain stuck in sub-par institutions.
NCLB is not perfect. There is certainly room for reform. But the heart of the bill is still precisely the right method for improving schools in this country -- including those in affluent suburbs.
Educators need to establish and protect clear achievement benchmarks. Schools should be regularly evaluated. Parents need to be given achievement data. And students stuck in bad schools should haven't their future snatched away from them -- they need to be empowered to switch to a better environment.
Our international friends and allies are training their children to compete in a global economy. We have to do likewise. And that means keeping all schools -- suburban and urban -- accountable.
Kerri Briggs is Director of Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute.
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