3 Myths About Failing Schools — Debunked

You've heard the story before: American schools are in crisis. Our students are being outperformed on international tests. Kids can't read, they can't write, they lack basic knowledge about historycivicsgeography — and they have poor work habits. You might look at all this and conclude that public education in the U.S. has declined drastically.

But you would be wrong.

In fact, there is plenty evidence to suggest that, overall, American schools are doing just fine — or at least not any worse than they've done before.

Yet a collection of pervasive myths continue to drive discussions about education policy in the U.S., despite their mythical status. Here I debunk three myths about the "failure" of American education, and identify a problem in education that, while entirely real, is typically ignored.

Myth #1: U.S. test scores are declining.

The truth is that American students' scores on standardized tests have steadily improved.

Consider the United States' performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), largely considered the "nation's report card" of testing. Unlike individual states' standardized tests, the NAEP is administered to students across the country, giving us a national snapshot of academic achievement.

In 1971, here's how American students scored on NAEP Reading, on average:

4th grade: 208

8th grade: 255

12th grade: 285

And here's how they did in 2008:

4th grade: 221

8th grade: 264

12th grade: 288

But those numbers don't tell the whole story. To see how much NAEP scores have really improved, consider our improvement in reading scores when broken down by ethnicity:

                                     Changes since 1971

                           White          Black        Hispanic (since 1975)

4th grade:            +14 pts        +34 pts       +25 pts

8th grade:             +7 pts         +25 pts       +10 pts

12th grade:           +4 pts         +28 pts       +17 pts

Not impressed yet? Here is the same data, for NAEP Math:

All students        1971      2008        

4th grade:             219        243           

8th grade:             266        281          

12th grade:           304        306          

                                             Changes since 1971

                           White          Black        Hispanic (since 1975)

4th grade:            +25 pts        +34 pts       +32 pts

8th grade:            +16 pts        +34 pts       +29 pts

12th grade:          +4 pts          +17 pts       +16 pts

To summarize: American students' scores on the NAEP are going up across the board--for all subgroups, in all grade levels, on Math and Reading tests. And achievement gaps between white and minority students are gradually narrowing. 

Myth #2: We're falling behind the rest of the world.

The truth is that American students never led the world on international tests, and have never come close to being number one. And our scores on international tests haven't declined — they've either stayed pretty much the same, or improved slightly.

When the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) was administered in 1964 to 12-year-olds in 12 different countries (Israel, Japan, Belgium, Finland, Germany, England, Scotland, Netherlands, France, Australia, the U.S., and Sweden), the U.S. ranked 11th out of 12, beating out only Sweden.

On the last Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), administered in 2011, the United States ranked 11th out of 57 in 4th grade math scores and 9th out of 56 in 8th grade scores. In both cases, U.S. students scored above the international average. Since the TIMSS was first administered in 1995, average 4th grade scores have improved by 23 points (541 vs. 518) and average 8th grade scores have improved by 17 points (509 vs. 492).

If you're not convinced yet, consider how the U.S. has performed on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA was first administered in 2000 to 15-year-olds in the 28 OECD nations and 4 other non-OECD nations, and measures proficiency in reading, math literacy, and science literacy. The test has been re-administered every 3 years, and in 2009, 65 nations participated.

Here's how U.S. students performed on past administrations of the PISA:

2000 Reading: 504 (15th out of 30) 

2003 Math: 483 (24th out of 29)

2006 Science: 489 (21st out of 30)

And here's how students performed in 2009:

Reading: 500 (17th out of 74)

Math: 487 (31st out of 74)

Science: 502 (23rd out of 74)

To summarize: we saw a tiny decrease in reading scores, a tiny increase in math scores, and a modest increase in science scores. It would be a stretch to characterize those results as a crisis.

Myth #3: We are producing a shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates because our math and science education is declining.

The truth is that American schools are producing a surplus of qualified STEM graduates, not a shortage.

Education researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the fallacies of the so-called STEM crisis. Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman, of Georgetown University and Rutgers University, have demonstrated not only that the U.S. is producing more qualified STEM graduates than ever before, but also that there are more STEM graduates than STEM jobs to fill.

Chief among their findings:

- American high school students are taking more math and science courses than ever before. In 1992, the average student completed 2.6 math credits and 2.2 science credits; by 1998, the average number of credits completed rose to 3.5 in math and 3.2 in science. Additionally, over the same period, the percentage of American 13-year-olds enrolled in Algebra and Pre-Algebra rose to 22 and 34 percent, from 16 and 19 percent.

- From 1972 to 2006, mean SAT Math scores increased from 510 to 518. 

- From 1977 to 2007, the number of American undergraduates who pursued STEM degrees increased consistently, as did the number of students pursuing Masters degrees in STEM fields. The number of students pursuing PhDs in STEM fields has stayed relatively stable.

- From 1977 to 2007, the percentage of American undergraduates who pursued degrees in Science and Engineering remained relatively stable (roughly 33%). The percentage of students pursuing Masters and doctorate degrees has also remained stable.

- Annually, American schools produce a STEM graduate pool that is approximately 50 percent larger than the amount of openings in STEM fields.

To summarize: The U.S. is producing more qualified STEM graduates than ever before. And there is no shortage of graduates--instead, the number of graduates exceed available STEM jobs.

Reality: The problem is poverty.

One measure on which the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world is the amount of children living in poverty. Out of 35 developed countries, the United States ranks 34th on the percentage of children living below the poverty line.

In 2011, about 22% of all children in the U.S. — that's nearly 16 million children — were living in poverty. That number has increased from about 16% in 2001.

The corrosive effects of poverty on learning have been well-documented. For the families of many students, poverty means inadequate access to health care (and prenatal care), food insecurity, increased exposure to harmful environmental pollutants, and greater family stress. Students whose families are homeless, transient, or living in substandard conditions are more likely to miss school and less likely to receive support at home on their schoolwork. And poor students are more likely to attend schools that are under-funded and under-resourced.

And family income is the most consistent predictor of success on standardized tests. Perhaps what's most remarkable, then, about the United States' improved performance on the NAEP over the past 40 years is that it has improved even as child poverty has increased.

In fact, if the U.S. didn't have so many of its children living in poverty, we would likely measure up very differently against the rest of the world on international tests.

Consider the PISA, on which American students ranked 17th in reading, with an average score of 500.

If we look only at American schools with <10% of students living in poverty, the average reading score is 551--higher than the overall average of any other nation that participated in the test.

American schools with between 10% and 15% of students living in poverty averaged a score of 527, putting them behind only Finland and South Korea. But American schools with >75% of children in poverty averaged a score of 446 — a score that would rank them 33rd out of the 34 OECD countries.

Poverty is the most serious problem facing American schools. Until we are able to debunk another popular myth — that "poverty doesn't matter" in education — we will continue to see our poorest students struggle in school. 

Why We Accept These Myths

You might be asking yourself: Why do these myths continue to dominate discussions of education policy if they aren't true?

The answer may lie more in who controls those discussions and less in the substance of the discussions themselves.

The myths described above — that American students' test scores are declining, that we are falling behind the rest of the world, and that we are producing a shortage of STEM graduates — are repeated most often by school reformers who want to restructure schools. Their agenda of systemic change is more persuasive when paired with a narrative of crisis, even if that narrative is founded on myths. In other words, we are more likely to accept policy reforms in schools if we believe the entire system is broken, even if it isn't.

As a teacher, I experience the strengths and failings of our public education system every day when I go into work. Our schools are not perfect — there is plenty more we can do to improve student learning, particularly for our country's poorest students.

But I can also attest that our schools are not in a crisis, and that characterizations of American schools as failed institutions are false.

Of course we should continue to identify areas for improvement when diagnosing America's schools. But instead of simply buying into myths that cast public education as a colossal failure, we should also recognize areas in which we have succeeded.