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Lesson 1.5

Is my school better than others?

My child will be fine, right?

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Most Californians, when asked, express concern about the public school system.

This sense of concern isn't limited to California. Gallup, the polling company, reports that public confidence in schools has fallen by half since its peak in 1975. Public education is not the only institution that has suffered a loss of confidence, but it is a strikingly consistent finding: Americans are broadly concered that the education system isn't working very well.

Beneath this general concern about the quality of public education, however, lies a paradox: parents generally tend to say they think better of their own local schools.

"I know the system is broken, but…"

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) periodically asks Californians to give their local school a letter grade. Year in, year out, even in the thick of the Pandemic, about half of public school parents give their school an A or a B. There are important patterns beneath the averages, though. For example, African-American respondents are much less likely to give an A or B to this question.

"…I guess my school's fine, right?"

Confidence in local schools, while it remains high, is slipping over time. Parents have real reasons to question whether their schools will deliver their child a future of bright opportunity. For example, college has become our society's primary gateway to a secure economic future, but an awful lot of students don't emerge from their K-12 years college-ready.

Who delivers bad news in education?

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 might 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?

Sources: NCES; Learning Heroes "Parents 2016: Hearts & Minds of Parents in an Uncertain World" (Click image for an updated report.)

Standardized tests aren't the only things that matter, but they deliver straightforward information about your child's learning progress without preamble or excuses. These scores deserve unflinching attention. They are the clearest, most honest way to tell if your student is on track, academically.

Choice-supportive bias in action

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, for example. Decades ago, California used to require all students to pass a test of basic skills to earn their high school diploma. Over half of the students who repeatedly failed the test 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 and their results.

This disconnect is human nature. Virtually everyone behind the wheel sees themself 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.

Updated May 2018, May 2019, June 2019, September 2021.

Review

The most accurate feedback parents receive about whether their child is on track for college is usually:

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
francisco molina August 12, 2019 at 11:26 pm
Afro-American and Latino students they have a common requirement : school counselor.
Mostly of their problems are hard to resolve inside the classroom, many of them come from families with low education and low salaries and the presence of the counselor make a big difference .
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek May 11, 2019 at 7:20 am
The education disparity for children of color is outlined above but I didn’t see anything about programs for kids who may not go to college. We have nearly abandoned skilled labor and trades for the idea that all kids should go to “college.”
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 20, 2019 at 4:34 pm
Thanks, Brenda -- California has tried in various ways over time to define success in terms of good outcomes including non-college outcomes. Ed100 Lesson 6.11 explains some of the fairly significant investments the state has made in Career Technical Education pathways. (Including on the California School Dashboard, explained further in our blog.)
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek May 10, 2019 at 6:41 pm
I often see students struggling in elementary school and know the challenge they have before them as they continue through secondary. It makes my heart sink. Our system needs redirection and intervention.
user avatar
Namrata Mundhra February 25, 2019 at 8:50 am
I was educated in India (through undergrad) but have kids in the CA public school system. One thing that consistently troubles me - I have a kid in middle school and one in high school is how little each rung of the ladder seems to prepare kids for the next. Kids in elementary school who go into middle school without reading and writing proficiently are going to struggle and that continues through the system until they hit high school and then it is too late to help.
user avatar
Caryn February 25, 2019 at 11:09 am
Hi Namrata, thanks for sharing your comment. You're absolutely correct--kids who aren't at grade level proficiency don't ever just magically catch up as they progress through the system. Your concern about "how little each rung of the ladder seems to prepare kids for the next" is important. That's certainly not how education is supposed to work--solid foundations are set and then built upon each year. Questions about curriculum can often be found on your district website or through some phone calls to your district office. Through personal experience, I've found that parents are woefully unaware of the resources available at the district offices regarding curriculum and other important grade-level information. I'm not saying this is true in your case but am sharing what I believe may be an issue for many parents.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder August 2, 2017 at 8:45 am
In 2017 Learning Heroes updated its national survey on parent expectations for their children. The most jaw-dropping insight is that parents care much more about their kids being happy and "not too stressed" by school than they do about their kids succeeding academically. And yet they overwhelmingly express confidence that their children will go to college and graduate. https://bealearninghero.org/parent-mindsets/
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm
The Atlantic takes a look at public perceptions of American schools-- Why Americans Think So Poorly of the Country's Schools. "Are public schools generally meeting Americans’ expectations? Or are they teetering on the brink of failure?"

One takeaway: Perception changes depending on how success is measured.
"Current data systems, which consist primarily of standardized-test scores, misrepresent school quality. They say more about family income than they do about schools. And they say very little about the many things that good schools do."

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm
Learning Heroes conducted a major survey to explore the chasm between parents' rosy expectations of their children's prospects for success in school and the actual results. achieved. The most shocking statistic is on page 4.
user avatar
wtgoddess May 31, 2015 at 5:48 am
How our teachers treat their students has a major impact on whether or not they choose to go to collage. My son has a couple of LDs. The teachers don't listen....and often hurt the chances of him going to collage. There needs to be accountability for teachers on this level.
user avatar
wtgoddess April 7, 2015 at 5:57 am
There has been bully issues at my kids school. My son unfortunately is "that kid " who gets bullied from k to now 6th grade. Sending our kids to school knowing this is happening and the law requires that they must go is heartbreaking
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:48 am
We barely make it financially because we sacrifice everything to ensure our kids have what they need. Because we are white and make what CA colleges deem "enough" money, our oldest daughter receives almost no financial aid and is working multiple jobs and will graduate college with over $100k in debt. We still have three others at home and can barely make bills, so we can't even help her with her tuition. Colleges don't care how much your monthly payments are for braces or your own student loans. It's a numbers game and unless your parent died in 9/11 or you are a minority, or you have a ridiculously high GPA, colleges don't consider you as needing assistance. More kids would go to college if they could afford it. But who wants to walk out of college with that much debt burdening you and whoever you choose to marry? Academic achievement has very little to do with what college accepts you or how much you have to pay.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm
Information about college debt is included in Lesson 9.9 on "High Hopes and College Loans."
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 10, 2015 at 10:29 am
Context matters. How parents and students perceive their school varies according to their frame of reference, which can be strongly affected by intentionally-defined school culture. Researcher Martin West shines light on the issue in this examination of schools with a "no excuses" culture. http://educationnext.org/limitations-self-report-measures-non-cognitive-skills/
His net advice: differences in expectations make "attitude" questionnaires a poor tool for comparing schools.
user avatar
celia4pta September 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm
Parents usually like their own schools because they are familiar with the teachers and other employees, and they feel everyone is doing his/her best. In California we have had over 30 years of underfunded schools, so the parents themselves don't even know what a fully equipped, well staffed school looks like.
Twenty years ago my sister in another state was complaining about her daughter's "large" class of 19 when my child was in a class of 35. And it has not exactly gotten better since.
We are trying not to blame our local educators or add to the "Schools Suck Industry" that John Mockler likes to refer to.
It seems like we end up with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. If schools are not doing well, then politicians and a certain segment of the population say, "Why throw money at a failing system." If schools are succeeding, why give more resources? The schools are seen as efficient. (See the Orange County Register for calculations on efficient use of school funds.)
Either way, the answer is the same: no additional resources.
Celia
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:25 am
Agree!
user avatar
anamendozasantiago February 5, 2015 at 5:27 pm
Word. I visited a gifted public school recently and it seemed they were in a different universe....They had one or more parent aids for every classroom...children were focused and we didn't see one child with a behavioral problem. Teachers were engaged and actually teaching instead of trying to get the students attention...The students had music, chess, sports, robotics, reading programs, mariachi, drama, choir and other academic competitions and programs from 2nd to 6th grade....At our school we only have sports, and after being without a library we finally got a part time librarian and music teacher this year. We were one of the lucky schools.
This gifted school receives around 400 application of qualified students but they only allow 60 students in. What a waste of wonderful, talented minds.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 5, 2015 at 6:21 pm
Thanks @anamendozasantiago -- you might also be interested in lesson 6.3, which addresses the topic of selectivity in schools.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 7, 2015 at 8:06 pm
I definately agree.
user avatar
Caprice Young March 7, 2011 at 12:41 am
Of course parents insist that their children's schools are good-- to do otherwise would be admitting they are bad parents. However, beyond looking for attentive teachers and a clean, safe facility, most parents don't know how to assess their local schools. Websites like www.greatschools.org can help them compare academic factors and track their school's progress. California schools are required to post report cards that compare their achievement levels to others. The information is available, but you have to know where to look to be able to compare all your educational options.

In some neighborhoods, though, there aren't any good choices. In South Los Angeles, for example, a group of local parents and educators took stock of their local schools and didn't like what they saw. Fifty percent and higher dropout rates for African American students, illiteracy extending into high school, and unsafe school environments, drove them to create the Inner City Education Foundation public schools. ICEF is committed to educating all students to the highest levels, ensure that every one graduates, gets accepted to a top college and is competitive once there. With a 97 percent graduation rate, a 100 percent college going rate, with 90 percent of graduates attending four year colleges and with 90 percent still in school and on track-- ICEF parents are proud of the schools they created.

It may seem extreme to start your own public schools, but if your current choices can't get the job done, parents and educators now have the ability to take matters into their own hands. Getting educated about education as a parent or student is the best way to start holding our schools accountable for ensuring that our kids can compete successfully in the global economy.
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