Which school do you want to support?
Most Americans are getting the message, in principle, that there are some real problems in our nation's schools. Gallup, the polling company, reports that public confidence in schools has fallen by half since its peak in 1975.
Californians, in particular, know that their schools are not doing well enough. In a key annual poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, about half consistently see education as a “big problem.” In 2013 only 13% viewed education as “not a problem.” But beneath this critical view lurks a paradox. The same annual survey consistently finds that “although they are negative about K-12 education in California overall, a strong majority of state residents give their neighborhood schools passing grades" of A (17% in 2012), B (35%), or C (27%). These numbers are very stable from year to year. Public school parents are even more sanguine than residents generally: in 2012 sixty percent gave their neighborhood schools a grade of A or B.
In other words: “The system is broken, but I guess my school is fine.”
Less than 30% of African American and Latino students qualify to even apply to a four year college
Unfortunately, the data say otherwise. If they finish high school at all, less than 30% of African American and Latino students qualify to even apply to a four year college. Fewer go on to attend, and fewer still actually complete their degree. (California's education data systems make it impossible to provide a good estimate, but it's certainly far less than a third.) In defiance of these odds, about 90% of low-income African American and Latino students say they expect to earn a college degree, and polls of their parents turn up similar numbers.
In other words: “Kids in general aren’t getting the education they need, but I guess mine will be fine.”
It's human nature to hear what you want to hear, and to look at what you want to see. Parents want to believe the best about their kids. It's also human nature (and good manners) to prefer to deliver bad news gently, with an emphasis on the positive. Teachers are no exception. Is it any wonder that parents prefer to draw conclusions about how their kids are doing from report cards and parent-teacher conferences, rather than from their kids' scores on standardized tests?
Standardized tests aren't the only things that matter, but they deserve unflinching attention. These scores deliver straightforward information about your child's learning progress without preamble or excuses. These scores are the clearest way to tell if your student is on track, academically. It can be awfully tempting to look away.
The tendency for wishful thinking (perhaps more accurately choice-supportive bias) does not seem to vary much with results. Communities whose schools have been chronically ineffective nevertheless give their schools passing grades. Over half of students who repeatedly failed the high school exit exam (now defunct) still said in surveys that they expected to go to college. In the movie Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim colorfully points out the huge gap between American students' confidence of their success and the reality of their results.
This disconnect is human nature. Virtually everyone behind the wheel sees him or herself as an above-average driver. Teachers and parents rate themselves as above-average, too, and extend their beliefs about themselves to the students in their care, like a nation of Lake Wobegon kids. Unfortunately for kids, in this case human nature doesn't serve them well.
The next lesson explores some good news: there are reasons to believe that California's school results are getting better.
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