Executive Perspective                                 Page 51


Public Approval in the Face

of Poverty



 Daniel Domenech

A new school year is about to start. For the past five years, school systems have suffered the worst economic decline since the Great Depression and, to add insult to injury, the effects of sequestration this year will add to the economic malaise.

Nevertheless, public education in America is the best that it has ever been. How can that be, you say? Media accounts abound as to how our schools are failing, with privatization, vouchers, charter schools and choice offered as our only salvation. Not true.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of students attending schools considered “dropout factories” has declined by 41 percent since 2002. The number of dropout factories has declined by 29 percent since 2007. A total of 1.1 million fewer students are attending such schools. Today, the dropout rate, which has been declining steadily since 1972, is the lowest it has ever been. Conversely, high school completion rates have been trending up, and we have the highest high school graduation rate in decades (78.2 percent during 2009-10).

College enrollment is at a high point, and more Hispanic students are pursuing postsecondary education than ever, 31.9 percent in 2010. As a matter of fact, minority college enrollment has increased for all groups. The educational attainment for all 25- to 29-year-olds is up. Ninety percent have achieved a high school diploma, 63 percent have had some college, and 33 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. The same can be said for the population 25 and older, with higher numbers in the same three categories.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, indicates that 9- and 13-year-old students have achieved the highest scores in math since 1973. The same can be said for reading scores. Black and Hispanic students have attained the highest scores since 1971. These are not the numbers you would expect to see for a failing school system. Results from the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study show that today’s high school graduates are earning more credits and completing higher curriculum levels.

Approval Ratings
Most parents are pleased with the education their children are getting. According to the 44th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 77 percent of America’s parents gave the school their oldest child attends a grade of A or B. Those are the highest grades parents have assigned to their oldest child’s school since the poll began. Twenty years ago the number was 64 percent.

Interestingly enough, when the same question is posed to the general public about the schools in their community, the number drops down to 48 percent, yet that number has been increasing steadily since 1992 when the number was 40 percent.

Finally, when the public is asked to rate public schools in the nation as a whole, only 19 percent give them grades of A or B. However, 20 years ago the number was 18 percent, so not much has changed. The conclusion to be drawn here is that the parents with children in school have given those schools today the highest ratings in the history of the poll, but as familiarity with the school lessens, from my community to the nation as a whole, the ratings decrease. To know our public schools is to love them!

Ugly Reality
Our schools, on average, are the best they have ever been. Yet the one positive element of No Child Left Behind was to disaggregate the standardized testing data, revealing that our low-income students still lag significantly behind the performance of middle-income-and-higher students. There is no question that poverty is the single greatest factor limiting student achievement. Much is made of our poor showing on international tests, but little is said about the fact that the United States has the highest rate of child poverty among peer countries at 23.1 percent. Finland, the country against whom we often are compared, ranks near the top on international tests. The nation has a child poverty rate of 5.3 percent. Shame on us.

We need to acknowledge that poverty is not an excuse; it is an ugly reality in America. As long as we are dependent on the local property tax to be the primary source of funding education, we will continue to have inequities in academic achievement between the haves and have-nots. If we do not have the will to make the necessary changes, we should not use the low-achieving systems we have allowed to exist to define our entire educational system as a failure.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org


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