No Excuses for Underachievement by Our Schools

 

America’s schools, including Arizona’s, are stuck in mediocrity. Our academic achievement indicators trail 20 of our OECD peers in every subject. It’s not getting better, either.

It matters more than national pride. The US has fallen to tenth in overall economic competitiveness, our lowest rank ever. Stanford’s Eric Hanushek estimates the US economy would grow 4.5% more in the next 20 years if our students just performed at the international average level.

We have to import workers in fields requiring advanced degrees and outsource tech jobs to other countries. Employers struggle to find trainable applicants.

American educators typically claim academic failure results from inadequate funding. But that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

In 2018, before the Covid-inspired spending boost, the US already spent $16,628 per student, well over the OECD average of $10,759. Arizona’s all-source spending, documented by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, exceeds $14,500 per student.

Other experts offer poverty and inadequate prenatal care as explanations for our achievement gap. But, again, living standards in the US are among the world’s highest. Prenatal care is provided to all pregnant women who are income-eligible, which included 42% of all births in 2020.

The causes of our systemic failure are more likely laid bare by the reaction found in an Arizona Republic article reporting that the BASIS schools had captured 10 of the 12 top spots in the ranking of Arizona high schools by US News and World Report. Since BASIS Schools, which have also topped many national rankings in recent years, are public charter schools, have open admissions, and may not require testing or charge tuition, this was an astonishing accomplishment.

You might normally assume that the media end education administrators would be eager to know the “secret sauce,” what BASIS does to consistently excel. But according to the experts quoted in the article, it’s all about race and privilege.

So says Tomas Monarrez of the Urban Institute, “those rankings are really a measure of prestige and prestige as we know it in this country is very intertwined with history, with race, with income.” Test scores can only reflect the quality of instruction “if the schools had the same student body.”

And indeed, seven of the top 20 public high schools are located in the wealthiest ZIP Codes in the state. The usual suspects, Asians and whites, are over-represented in the high-achieving schools.

But here’s a simple logic test. If wealth and privilege explain the superior performance of the top ranking schools why aren’t all schools in high wealth districts excellent? After all, the seven charter schools in well-off areas outperformed district schools with the same demographics. The other 13 schools in the top 20 weren’t even in wealthy districts at all.

Here’s a more likely explanation than skin color or “privilege.” BASIS, like all schools of excellence, is unflinchingly committed to high-level learning for all of its students. BASIS stresses rigorous requirements and high expectations.

Students take an average of 11 Advanced Placement courses with six required for graduation. Students, parents, and school staff are all expected to robustly participate in educating.

Critics contend that the schools’ high expectations are a de facto barrier for many public school students. But there is nothing inherently racist or discriminatory about high expectations. In fact, they are critical for underprivileged students to be successful, as has been amply demonstrated by KIPP schools, New York’s Success Academies, and others.

The wealth-and-privilege explanation for excellence is also belied by the example of Tolleson’s University High School. Many students come from working-class or immigrant backgrounds, but Principal Vickie Landis offers no excuses. On the contrary, “we pride ourselves on rigorous expectations and opportunities.” The school was ranked in Arizona’s 10 Best and was named the state’s only 2022 National Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education.

America’s education system structure is based on an outdated factory model, not suited to flexibility, accountability, and personalization based on consumer choice. Union-style work rules make excellence unlikely, despite many dedicated individual teachers.

But no more excuses. It’s hard to excel, especially with underprivileged students, but we can do better – and we must.

Published in Education
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  1. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    I think the bulk of the blame rests with the very powerful teachers unions.  Society can pick one – the unions or the students.

    • #1
  2. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    What about the genetic hypothesis?  There is a great deal of evidence that intelligence is highly heritable.  An increase in the proportion of students from lower-scoring demographic groups is going to lower average performance.

    Sadly, interventions to raise intelligence have proven ineffective.  Charles Murray has a recent book about this.

    • #2
  3. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    First, the obvious answer is to abolish compulsory education and let a thousand approaches to education bloom.

    But, second, by what rigorous logic could one possibly conclude that better educational performance would grow the economy by a particular number? Is a fry cook with an understanding of AP Calculus more productive?

    • #3
  4. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Why is it schools which underachieve rather than children (and their parents)?  Seems the solution to the issue might lie in there somewhere.

    @rightangles – you slipped something into my coffee when I wasn’t looking, didn’t you?

    • #4
  5. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I’m going to say it again.  It’s simple to fix but difficult.  New Zealand was at the bottom of the West’s schools when the UK joined the EC and had to turn New Zealand loose.  They  had a socialist government but a free market Finance Minister.  He freed their schools, turned them over to teachers and made them compete with each other for students.  Every school was independent, funded by parents who choose to send their kids to it.   Teachers knew who were good and who weren’t and to compete for students they got rid of lousy teachers.  New Zealand went to the top of western schools in one year.  The US is more complex, giant as opposed to tiny, but there are some states who could do something very similar.  The key is to put parents in charge of choosing schools and teachers in charge of individual schools.  It’s called a competitive market and competitive markets work and we better understand that reality before we continue to destroy the economy.  Fixing education, which is the center of socialist organization and thought is the place to begin.  We act overwhelmed and diddle at the edges, because we don’t think the poor and minority groups can deal with it.  Nonsense. They are the groups who need it most and while they wont move in mass, sharp parents will move and show the way.  

    • #5
  6. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    What about the genetic hypothesis? There is a great deal of evidence that intelligence is highly heritable. An increase in the proportion of students from lower-scoring demographic groups is going to lower average performance.

    Sadly, interventions to raise intelligence have proven ineffective. Charles Murray has a recent book about this.

    I accept the realist position on this, but the IQ differences don’t completely explain the catastrophic failures in education of minorities. They explain why we will never have proportional representation in physics Phd’s, but not why so many blacks read at an elementary school level. 

    Haven’t we known for decades that family structure is the most significant determinant in education outcomes?  The 70% rate of black births to single mothers is all you need to know, and until that changes, nothing else will matter.

    • #6
  7. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    I Walton (View Comment):

    I’m going to say it again. It’s simple to fix but difficult. New Zealand was at the bottom of the West’s schools when the UK joined the EC and had to turn New Zealand loose. They had a socialist government but a free market Finance Minister. He freed their schools, turned them over to teachers and made them compete with each other for students. Every school was independent, funded by parents who choose to send their kids to it. Teachers knew who were good and who weren’t and to compete for students they got rid of lousy teachers. New Zealand went to the top of western schools in one year.

    The UK joined the Common Market in 1973. Roger Douglas was the free market Labour Finance Minister from 1984-1988. The educational reforms of 1988-1991 decentralised control over schools, shifting many decisions from the Department of Education to local school boards. Funding still came from the central government. Teachers were still highly unionised and protected. There is no evidence of New Zealand’s school performance having changed (nor of it being terrible prior to the reforms).

    (See e.g. Implementing Education Reforms in New Zealand: 1987-97, Perris, 1998 (pdf); Picot Report/Tomorrow’s Schools. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), Openshaw, 2014 (web).)

     

    • #7
  8. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    @tompatterson, do you still live in AZ?   Do you have any opinion on the current state Superintendent of Public lnstruction GOP candidates?   Assuming one of them attains the office, what should they do to enable the public schools to pursue higher achievement?   What can and should be done by local school boards?

    As an aside, why were the public universities in AZ and most (all?) other red and purple states allowed to be overtaken by the Left?  What should those state legislatures and governors be doing to get rid of the DIE bureaucracy, enforce free speech, return to academic freedom, and stop turning out indoctrinated graduates who can’t think or write clearly? 

    • #8
  9. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    What does BASIS stand for?  Not familiar with the acronym . . .

    • #9
  10. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    Stad (View Comment):

    What does BASIS stand for? Not familiar with the acronym . . .

     I looked all over their website and I see no definition, so perhaps they’re not using it as an acronym.   https://www.basised.com/who-we-are/

    There is a BASIS school in my town, and a family friend’s 2 children both attended.   It is academically rigorous to the point where many students have to give up outside interests and hobbies while they attend.  That being said, the older one is graduating from college this year, has multiple job offers, and is doing very well.

    • #10
  11. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Striving for comfortable mediocrity has the virtue of being comfortable. The downside is that it produces mediocrity. It’s good for people to have to work hard at things. It’s good for kids as well as adults.

    Our culture’s pathological emotional sensitivity is breeding generations of pre-triggered snowflakes. Now California wants to mandate a 32-hour work week, as if working 40 hours a week was somehow bad for people. It isn’t bad for people.

    It is not good for us to become soft, fat, fearful, lazy, and jealous of our comforts.

    • #11
  12. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Why is it schools which underachieve rather than children (and their parents)? Seems the solution to the issue might lie in there somewhere.

    The problems exist in every link in this chain. The culture around schools is often hostile, with parent culture leaning to the “blame the teacher” default setting which contributes to the kids’ disdain for all things educational. In some cases it’s appropriate, but for some it’s a defensive exercise to put lipstick on the pig they raised.

    I’ve spent the past two weeks proctoring AP exams and despite widespread participation, any student not actually sitting for that day’s exam couldn’t be bothered to remain quiet outside the testing rooms to give their classmates and fellow students a better testing environment. You tell them to be quiet and they look at you like you just descended from a spacecraft. Boundaries? Accountability? Huh?

    We can fault both the parent and the school administration for creating this lack of awareness of others, but also everything and every group that promotes a self-indulgent mentality. “I’m special because….[fill in (likely victimized) identity du jour].”

    Don’t get me wrong, a bit of “me first” is necessary. We are a country based on the idea that we should have the liberty to follow our own self-interest, provided it doesn’t conflict with another’s security to pursue (trigger warning!) his or her self-interest. That’s where the whole noisy crowd outside the testing room thing comes in.

    It should be something they know, but by all appearances, they’re simply confused by the idea of remaining quiet as they go from one class to another. Encouragingly, this is at least one aptitude where the boys seem better about absorbing the lesson than the girls.

    There is much to discuss on this, and only part of it is the schools.

    • #12
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