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The Myth of the High Achiever: Accountability is for All Schools

Article by Mark Dynarski April 9, 2014 //   5 minute read

A gaffe, it once was said, is when a politician tells the truth. This came to mind when I read what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently in a meeting with state chiefs of education. Referring to the Common Core standards now being implemented around the country, he said it was fascinating that opposition to the standards was coming from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Reaction was furious, especially from suburban moms.

It’s déjà vu again. The same debate arose when No Child Left Behind created an accountability system and many schools, even schools in affluent districts, were labeled “in need of improvement.” The most likely source of the label was that minority and special education students were not making progress in those schools. But, regardless, parents who buy nice homes in nice neighborhoods were unhappy to learn that their schools were labeled as lacking.

A finding that pops up a lot in education research is that parents believe their own child’s school is fine but the education system as a whole needs improvement. At its heart is a conundrum: other schools need to improve but my child’s school does not. And so reforms are opposed as unneeded or unwelcome. Reform efforts like NCLB or the Common Core, or any reform that toughens standards or increases what is to be learned, face the conundrum, and we are back where Secretary Duncan found himself, inside a maelstrom of ill will stirred up by the very idea that all schools might need improving.

High-poverty schools often overshadow debates about education reform. Problems are most evident there. But suppose we go to the other end of the education spectrum, and ask how our college-bound students are doing. At this end of the spectrum, poverty and the problems of high-poverty schools are not an issue.

The news is not good. One in five of our college-bound students must take remedial education in their first year of college. Which means parents have to pay tuition and their son or daughter is not going to receive credit. College is expensive enough without extra costs being tacked on.

The picture gets worse when college completion is factored in. The logic that “my local school must be fine because many of its graduates go to college” is sensible as far as it goes, but it’s incomplete. How many students finish college? After all, being really prepared for college suggests that once a student gets there, they can get a degree. Focusing on four-year colleges and looking at completion within five years, the number is 54 percent. About half of college-goers trying to get a bachelor’s degree get it within five years. Or, to put it the other way around, about half of college goers become college dropouts or languish into a sixth or seventh year. (More cost!) And if the student is black or Hispanic, the rate is lower: 35 percent and 45 percent (I am using the cohort of students who started college in 2005; completion rates are lower for older cohorts.)

Did parents understand whether their son or daughter was prepared for college? What information did they use to know this? Well, grades and test scores. But grades have the problem of being determined by local grading standards. A teacher can give high grades for so-so performance. So, test scores.

Parents may want to believe that focusing on tests is ruination, that education is about so much more. But protecting students (and their parents) from tests is not the answer. Performance in college is all about tests.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote that “Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.” Thinking about how parents might be evaluating their local schools, one way to mitigate this kind of blindness is by using numbers, which themselves are not subject to illusions. Numbers can be spun, of course, but they do not suffer from blindness wrought of overconfidence.

Mark Dynarski is president of Pemberton Research in New Jersey.

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