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.