Complacency about public education

The big scandal about American K-12 education isn’t how many failing schools there are miseducating kids from deprived backgrounds; it’s what a lousy job the non-failing schools do educating kids from non-deprived backgrounds.

Kevin Drum thinks that 80% of American public schools are “basically OK” and we only need to worry about the other 20%. (Matt Yglesias points out that some of the 80% are really OK, because they’re providing decent educations to those of their kids who come from deprived backgrounds, while some only look OK because they don’t have many kids with deprived backgrounds to deal with.)

If by “basically OK” you “OK at teaching basic English,” Kevin is right. The graduates of most high schools can read a newspaper, as long as it’s edited for a tenth-grade reading level. If by “OK” you mean that the schools are adequately preparing their students for work, for life, or for further education, it’s not true, or anywhere close to true.

UCLA provides a first-rade undergraduate education at something like a fifth of the cost of going to an elite private college or university. So, despite our insane decision to discriminate against people from out of state in our admissions decisions, we get an extremely strong freshman class, as is natural if you can afford to admit about one applicant in four: the median combined SAT is somewhere in the low 1300s and the median GPA is above 3.75 out of a possible 4.

And yet, on average, our undergraduates don’t come in knowing how to write a grammatically correct sentence, let alone a well-reasoned essay. Yes, California now has a worse-than-average public school system. But we’re talking about the top 4% of California’s high-school graduates, and lots of them write sentences in which the verbs don’t agree with the subjects in number.

(I once reviewed a draft essay with an extremely bright UCLA biology major. To point out an agreement error, one of many in that stack of papers, I underlined a sentence and said, “What’s the subject of this sentence?” She responded by telling me what the sentence was about. When I said that what I wanted was the grammatical subject, it took her three guesses to find it. It took her three more guesses to find the verb. No, I’m not making this up; as she left my office, she told me that in her entire educational career no one had ever either gone over a piece of her writing with her or demonstrated how to parse a sentence.)

One of the many bad features of NCLB is that it focuses entirely on the bottom of the distribution. Our smartest students are being systematically cheated. That’s less true in rich neighborhoods than in poor ones, but it’s true everywhere.

I agree with Kevin and Matt that the complacency of suburban parents about the education their kids are receiving is a political asset for those trying to help the country escape from the NCLB trap. But that complacency isn’t justified, and it’s not a Good Thing. Public education in this country is basically broken, and not just at the bottom. It’s going to take a ton of money, and not only money, to fix it. The faster we notice the problem the faster we can get to working on solutions. When grade-school teachers have incomes high enough to be able to afford elite colleges for their children, and the professional prestige we now accord to doctors, we’ll be on our way.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: