The Real Reason America's Schools Stink

A teacher gives out rulers to second graders in Vaasa, Finland Photograph by Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, millions of American schoolchildren will return to the classroom from summer vacation, and not a moment too soon. Compared to  those hard-studying kids in China, Korea or Finland, U.S. students appear to be chronic underachievers. The average kid in the U.S. does less than one hour of homework on average at all grade levels, according to a study from a few years ago by RAND and the Brookings Institution. A recent Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Education Reform and National Security led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, former head of New York City public schools, concluded that the country’s “educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

There’s no question that the performance of the U.S. education system is less than stellar. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, gives tests to high school kids across a range of countries.  The evaluation finds that the US ranks behind sixteen other economies including Poland, Estonia and South Korea in terms of student literacy –the ability to read, integrate and evaluate texts. U.S. student rankings on mathematics are even lower — dropping under countries including Slovenia, Hungary and Taiwan. The United States also produces some of the biggest gaps in test scores between stronger and weaker students.

So, where’s the group in the U.S. that could try harder? Is it the teachers, more concerned with their tenure and pension rights than actually teaching kids? Is it miserly federal and state lawmakers, starving their educators of resources? Or maybe it is the lackadaisical students, too addicted to questing with their avatar through World of Warcraft to think about algebra?

The answer, it turns out, is none of the above. If there’s a crisis in U.S. education, the fault lies with a group more accustomed to leveling blame than receiving it: parents.

One upside of all the hand-wringing about the state of U.S. education is that vast amounts of data now exist about what’s really happening in America’s classrooms. In recent years teachers have become the chief targets of reformers’ ire. Yet a Gates Foundation study released in January this year based on 3,000 classrooms across the nation found that less than eight percent of teachers in their survey ranked below “basic” competence.  And a second Gates-financed study released earlier this month suggests the average teacher may be working an eleven-hour day.

As for the argument that American schools suffer from a lack of resources, analysis by economists Eric Hanushek at Stanford University and Ludgar Woessman at the University of Munich suggests the average U.S. student costs around $80,000 to educate from the age of six to fifteen.  Only Switzerland spends at a similar level, and the Czech Republic, which scores higher that the U.S. on the international math tests, spends about a third of that amount.

Maybe it is the students that explain why we’re behind? It is true that they aren’t slaving over the books as long as they do in some other countries. Yet the idea that the U.S. has become a nation of slackers is overblown. Between 2002 and 2009, the US high school graduation rate climbed three percentage points, so that more than three quarters of all students now get a diploma.  And according to the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average school kid is learning more than ever before.

Still, it is true America’s students don’t do as well on tests as some of their counterparts in other countries. And the biggest problem involves parents.

Around the world, the catch-all measure used to proxy for parental commitment to education is the number of books in a child‘s household. This measure predicts student educational outcomes better than class sizes, or expenditures per student, the length of the school day or better class monitoring. Hanushek and Woessman have found that among 27 rich countries, the United States sees one of the strongest relationships between parental book ownership and child learning outcomes. In the U.S., kids from homes where there are more than two full bookcases score two and a half grade levels higher than kids from homes with very few books.

At the same time, parents in the U.S. are more engaged in their children’s schooling than ever before. Surveys of students conducted in 1988 and again in 2011 suggest the proportion of schoolchildren who talk to their parents about what happened in school every day has climbed from two-fifths to two-thirds. The number of parents who visit the school at least once a month has climbed from sixteen to 46 percent. It isn’t that Americans don’t care. The problem is that parents – and particularly poorer parents — aren’t empowered to make a difference.

How do you help parents ensure that their kids can learn? First off, they need tools to judge if any learning is going on. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law a decade ago, provided for annual state-wide testing for all students, but reduced the ability of schools to respond to student needs by suggesting “one high, challenging standard” for all children, while encouraging educators to “teach to the test.‘  A better approach would be to develop benchmarks to allow schools to measure whether every kid knows a lot more at the end of the year than they did at the start.

Second, parents need the power to use the knowledge from testing to improve learning outcomes for their children.  While No Child Left Behind also mandated that schools are obliged to “encourage parental participation,” it spent little ink on the details of how this was to be done.  But we know what works –ensure parents are close enough to education decision makers that their voices can be heard.  Third, parents need help in ensuring their kids don’t start school already behind. Hanushek and Woessman argue that greater access to kindergarten and pre-kindergarten among poor and immigrant students translates into higher PISA testing scores a decade later.

Finally, the culture needs to shift. All too many parents, all too often based on bitter experience, don’t believe they can make a difference to the quality of their local school or their kid’s education. For testing, accountability and pre-school access reforms to make a real difference, that belief has to change, which is no easy trick. But surely the first step is to ensure that when parents do try, they can succeed. Schooling in America isn’t an insoluble mess; if anything, it may be on the way up. And if parents are given the tools, they can help make it stronger.