Are Middle Class White Schools in Crisis, Too?

Nothing too surprising in President Obama's "Education Nation" interview this morning with Matt Lauer, but here's what interested me: Both Obama and "Waiting for Superman" director Davis Guggenheim have been making the argument that although we must focus on "dropout factories" and other low-performing urban schools, we can't let middle class suburban schools off the hook, since they aren't up to par with our international competitors.

Is that true? Not really.

In "WFS," Guggenheim features Emily, a Silicon Valley eighth grader who wants to take advanced math, but would be tracked into lower-level courses at her district high school because of her history of mediocre math grades. To avoid this fate, which could impact her chance of being admitted into an elite college, Emily enters a charter school lottery.

(Emily's zoned high school, by the way, is not following best practices. Most experts agree that advanced curricula for many more students–and certainly those students who want to be exposed to higher-level coursework–is an education reform no-brainer.)

This morning, Obama discussed the same theme: "Across the board in middle class suburbs…you are still seeing a decline in terms of math and science performance, and one of the things we are very excited about…we are going to specifically focus on training 10,000 new math and science teachers. We've got to boost performance in that area."

Politically, I think this is a smart point to make. Middle class and affluent parents, who tend to feel their own children's schools are adequate, should absolutely be encouraged to buy-into school improvement efforts.

On a policy level though, Obama's statement is misleading. As this NAEP chart demonstrates, math performance among high school seniors has remained basically static since 1973. That's not a good thing; of course we should be improving! But it's not the crisis of declining performance Obama (and the media) often make it out to be.

This is, in part, the point Nick Lemann made in his New Yorker column on "the overblown crisis in American education." It's important to note that the major problem with American education is the problem of class and race inequality. As Linda Darling Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education, "students in the highest-achieving states and districts in the United States do as well as those in high-achieving nations elsewhere." Indeed, American white, Asian, and multiracial children perform better than the OECD average in reading, science, math, and problem solving. It is black and Hispanic kids that are falling behind.

4 thoughts on “Are Middle Class White Schools in Crisis, Too?

  1. Clay Boggess

    It’s true that everyone seems to forget about the middle and upper class when it comes to academic performance. Obama’s education reform plan is not about them, it’s about the lower class. No one seems to want to admit that the decline in academic performance can be directly linked to the continual breakdown of the family and family values. This decline has been happening for several decades.

  2. Robert Rothman

    Lemann is certainly right that the American education system is a remarkable accomplishment and that educational attainment has advanced considerably in the last century. But he fails to note that this success story stalled about thirty years ago. Today, about 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate on time, and the college graduation rate, once the highest in the world, has been overtaken by many other nations.

    See my blog post: link to

  3. EdwardJGS

    Not that differences in cognitive ability would have anything to do with that inequality, of course.

    We can confidently rule that possibility out, in advance, on moral grounds, without needing to look at any data, because if it were true, then we would be evil.

    link to

  4. Kevin Winningham

    Where did this four year high school time plan come from? Students who take more than the usual four years to finish are considered slow or backward. College students can take as long as they want to get a diploma. If a high school student needs more time then the student should get it.


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