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The dirty little secret is that accountability can help suburban schools, too

January 22, 2014 by William McKenzie

This weekend I was with a friend who talked about the blizzard of tests that her child must take in the Dallas school district. She is a really good mom and hardly the only parent to complain about testing. So, I mostly listened, and didn’t necessarily disagree that districts offer a lot of benchmark tests to see if their students are on a path to meet the annual state exam. (In Texas, the annual test is the STAAR exam.)

But, as we talked, I kept thinking about what would happen to students if the state really didn’t have a good idea where her child or any other child was headed.  In other words, what would happen if states didn’t test their kids and hold campuses accountable for the outcomes? 

This includes students in schools with a substantial number of suburban, affluent parents.  There is an assumption that accountability is good for campuses that serve low-income families, but it is not needed for those with students from higher-earning families.

But here is that dirty secret: A good system of evaluating as helps suburban parents, too.

I am going to be exploring this overlooked reality in posts as we go along here on the Bush Blog. For now, I want to start with this thought:  Suburban parents may think their kids are doing well, yet they may not be when stacked up against peers around the world.

I say all of this as a dad of two elementary school kids.  Like everyone else, I want them to do well, for their sake. But what if their schools look good on the surface, but aren’t really so swell when you start digging into the data that testing produces?

That gets scary.  Junior may not be ready for those jobs that the modern economy seeks out and rewards.  Whether we like it or not, those jobs often mean being proficient in math and science. At the least, they require decent reading comprehension skills.

Well, guess what? Suburban schools may not always be getting their kids ready for that world, no matter how much we think they are.

As one example, look at the findings of this Global Report Card. Drawing upon the most recent available data, it shows how students in various U.S. districts stack up against students from around the world.

Here is the finding that really jumped out at me: On average, nearly half of the wealthiest districts in America trailed their international peers in math. (Most of the wealthy districts are suburban ones, and, for the record, I had nothing to do with compiling the Global Report Card.)

Sure, some students in wealthy, largely suburban districts knocked it out of the park in math. We should be very glad about that. So should their parents. But, on average, nearly half of those districts were behind their peers internationally.

I wonder how many suburban parents in those districts actually know that fact?

Probably not many. And this takes us back to the conversation I had over the weekend.

Testing may seem like it’s draining the life out of schools, but what if it instead is showing us the way forward? What if it reveals what our kids are doing right and what they need to improve upon?

I don’t see the harm in that, especially if Junior’s job will one day depend upon the answers.


Author

William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

Full Bio