Is Suburban Education Holding Back the Economy?

Posted 26 November 2012 by

Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, has highlighted an often overlooked failing of public education in the U.S. — the gap between what students in our “better” suburban districts achieve and what students in other countries, with similar demographics, achieve.  As a nation, our discussions around “closing the gap” almost always focus on narrowing the differences in performance between students in our higher-poverty urban districts and those in our more “privileged” suburban districts.  But, in fact, students in suburban districts underperform their peers in other developed countries to an extent that is equally, if not more, damaging to our country.  As Levine writes in a recent Wall Street Journal article,  “The problem America faces, then, is that its urban school districts perform inadequately compared with their suburban counterparts, and its suburban districts generally perform inadequately compared with their international counterparts. The domestic achievement gap means that the floor for student performance in America is too low, and the international achievement gap signals that the same is true of the ceiling. America’s weakest school districts are failing their students and the nation, and so are many of America’s strongest.”

According to the Global Report Card database, when the students in U.S. suburbs are compared with two of the top school systems in the world—Finland and Singapore— only a very few (such as Evanston, IL, and Scarsdale, NY) outperform the international competition. Most suburban areas in the U.S. – includes the famed districts of Grosse Point, MI, Montgomery County, MD, and Greenwich, CT — under-perform the international competition, and often by a significant degree.

According to Levine, the often-discussed ”domestic” gap increases social inequality by relegating millions of young people to low-paying jobs.  But the “international” gap reduces the potential of our economy as a whole, because we fail to produce enough leaders in science, technology, math and engineering to compete fully in the knowledge-driven industries that are creating the most wealth across the globe.  (Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if its students merely performed at Canada’s level in math.  See report.)

Many, if not most, of the developed countries compared to the U.S. in the Global Report Card database practice wider forms of School Choice than are typical in the U.S., especially in our suburban areas that are thought to already have “good” schools.  In fact, the traditional school district structure in the U.S., where students attend district monopoly-run schools based on their address, is almost unheard of in other advanced countries.  It might be a useful, if sobering, exercise, for people to look up their own school district on the Global Report Card map, to see how their local students compare with students in the countries that constitute our main global competitors.  Then one might ask why we would think that a centralized, unaccountable, top-down bureaucracy that offers almost no choice to end-users would succeed in K12 education, even though it fails almost everywhere else it is found.

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