Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children. Past efforts at improvement, and vast increases in spending, have accomplished little or nothing, they say. Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle class students have narrowed little, so as the proportion of white children declines, this failure of our schools weakens our nation, rendering it unable to compete internationally.
In truth, this conventional view relies upon imaginary facts.
You may be surprised to learn that African-American elementary school student achievement, in Illinois and nationwide, has been improving so spectacularly that in math, the average black student now performs better than about 90% of all black students performed less than a generation ago.
What’s more, black elementary school math performance is now better than white performance was in the previous generation.
Let me repeat: black elementary school students today have better math skills than white students did only twenty years ago.
The gains have been almost as great for middle-schoolers in math, and for elementary school students in reading,
Most gains were posted in the 1990s, before the test-obsessed accountability system called “No Child Left Behind,” a law whose flawed premise was that it was necessary to force educators to pay attention to minority students.
For Hispanic students, there are no data that can distinguish between very recent immigrants and children who have attended American schools throughout childhood. But my guess is that if we had data, we would conclude that Hispanic gains have been equally dramatic.
Policymakers, pundits, and politicians ignore these gains; they conclude that you, educators, have been incompetent because the test score gap hasn’t much narrowed.
But the reason it hasn’t narrowed is that your profession has done too good a job — you’ve improved white children’s performance as well, so the score gap persists, but at a higher level for all.
Policymakers, with a preconception that schools must be failing because the public sector and its employees must be corrupt, are not interested in these facts. As a result, we’ve wasted 15 years avoiding incremental improvement, and instead trying to upend a reasonably successful school system.
Of course, not all teachers are competent; some have unacceptably low expectations, some should improve, and others shouldn’t be in the classroom at all. But the data show this is not the most serious problem we face.
Instead of searching for systemic failure where it does not exist, we should have been trying to figure out what we have been doing right, so we can do more of it. That will be one of your challenges, and you will have to do it with little support from elite opinion.