Are We Deluding Ourselves About Our Schools?

Why parents think that the nation's schools are a mess but their own kid's school is fine

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Today, I walked my first-grade son to our neighborhood public school before joining over 500 leaders converging on New York City to make tangible commitments to promote economic mobility in America at the Opportunity Nation summit. I told Matthew that people were coming virtually every sector — business, education, non-profit and community organizations, religious institutions and the military — to focus on how to provide him and his peers from every background a great education and a shot at the American dream. When I dropped Matthew off at his school’s front door, he looked at me and warned me with a big smile not to follow him inside — something I occasionally do partly to make him laugh and partly out of that desire to support him wherever he goes.

I didn’t follow my son inside that schoolhouse door. But I have been working hard to determine what commitments I can personally make to provide our kids and all of America’s children with tools they can use to create opportunity once they walk as young adults out of our sight-line into America’s future.

One must know where one is in order to determine where to go and how to get there, but today’s parents face significant challenges in that regard.

First, the ticket for my son and America’s children to the middle class and American dream requires much more and better education than for my generation or my parents’ generation. When I was Matthew’s age, only a quarter of the middle class had post-secondary education. Today, nearly two-thirds of middle class jobs require at least some post-secondary education. And we have seen that many of our high school graduates are leaving ill-prepared for success in college or careers.

(MORE: Why College Tuition Should Be Regulated)

Second, just as the demand has risen for education, the outcomes of the American educational system that my son recently entered have been largely stagnant or insufficient. When I was Matthew’s age, America led the world in educational outcomes — including in high school and college completion rates. Today, America has slipped from first to 15th in the percentage of our young people with post-secondary degrees. That’s not because our performance has declined but because some other countries have raced ahead.

And just this week, the “nation’s report card” — issued by a body called the National Assessment for Educational Progress — showed stagnation in elementary school reading levels even while there were encouraging but still modest improvements in pre-high school math.

But while parents and the American public sense there is an urgent need for improving American schools, they largely believe their own kids’ schools are doing just fine. A recent national survey, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, showed that while only 17% of those asked would grade the nation’s public schools overall as an A or B, 79% would give one of those grades to their oldest child’s school. I believe that’s because many of my peers believe that the education for our generation — and for our own parents and grandparents — is adequate for our kids. But as I note above, that’s no longer true.

(MORE: Who’s Minding the Education-Achievement Gap?)

I also believe that parents make this mistake because the measures comparing U.S. educational performance to other nations — including the Program for International Student Assessment — only to date have done so for our country overall and for entire states, not for individual schools, so parents and educators can’t see where their child’s school stands in comparison to other countries.

What do we need to do about this? At the Opportunity Nation summit, I’m committing to help parents the tools they need. First, our non-profit organization America Achieves will work with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and several U.S. foundations to make it possible for individual U.S. high schools to take this PISA and for the first time get school scores comparing their performance to global performance, including the highest-performing nations.

Second, I’ll commit to Matthew, his younger siblings Elizabeth and Philip, and their peers that I won’t follow them into school each morning — but that I also won’t be complacent in thinking that their school, or any of our schools, are just fine given tomorrow’s demands. I’ll work with other parents and Americans from all backgrounds to look our kids in the eyes — and personally commit to helping them get what they need to succeed when they leave the schoolhouse doors and enter into America’s future.

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