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Dispelling Myths: America’s Public Schools Are Not Failing

“America’s schools are failing.” “United States slips on latest world education rankings.” “American students less prepared than ever before.”

Listening to the national narrative on K-12 education might have you believe that learning no longer happens in America’s public schools, or that every school building is on the brink of collapse.

In recent years, school choice advocates have propped up this sentiment, framing for-profit charters and private schools as competent disruptors capable of reviving a failing system.

But ask the average parent what they think of their kid’s public school and you’re more likely to meet a different reaction.

As education professor and researcher Jack Schneider points out in a recent story for The Atlantic, when asked to apply standard letter grades to their children’s schools, the majority of public school parents hand out A’s and B’s, displaying a nearly across-the-board confidence in their district’s ability to engage and inspire young learners.

While parents tend to think the schools where they send their children do a good job, they often share a lower opinion of public schools overall, Schneider reports, handing down C’s and D’s to other schools.

For more on staying relevant in the age of school choice, read More families are choosing out–and academics is just one reason why.

So, where does this perception gap stem from? Is it just a matter of parents being too removed from what’s happening in schools and communities outside of their own district? Or, are parents simply overconfident in their own school choices?

Both questions are likely to impact perceptions, says Schneider. But the most likely reason is something else: School administrators and local communities still don’t have a reliable way to measure and interpret student success.

Getting beyond the test

It’s no secret that standardized testing has been the primary measure of school success in recent years. The trend started with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, and state and federal governments have become increasingly reliant on test scores as a means to assess school and school district performance—and, in many cases, to assign funding.

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Since the passage of NCLB, writes Schneider, the national perception of K-12 public education has grown increasingly pessimistic. In his survey, Schneider says that 60 percent of respondents graded America’s schools with a C or D in 2002. That number jumped to 69 percent in 2015.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—NCLB’s replacement, which takes effect later this year—aims to reduce the emphasis on test scores by encouraging states to consider additional indicators of school progress, including school climate and student engagement.

Changing perceptions locally and nationally

Will deemphasizing standardized test scores help to change national perceptions about our K-12 schools? We’ll know more when ESSA goes into effect later this year.

Schneider posits that more comprehensive measures of school assessment will help to bridge known perception gaps:

“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. They indicate nothing, for instance, about how safe students feel, how strong their relationships with teachers are, or how they are developing socially and emotionally.”

But school leaders needn’t sit and wait for the results of early ESSA assessments. As school choice creates competition for the nation’s K-12 schools, the narrative that America’s public schools are failing, be it real or perceived, could significantly impact future enrollments and funding.

By that logic, school leaders would be wise to both rebrand their own schools locally, and the image of public education in America nationally.

If it’s true that a rising tide lifts all boats, it makes good sense that America’s most successful school districts should be at the forefront of changing the conversation about public education.

What steps is your school or district taking to change perceptions about public schools in your community? Do you think the pending ESSA implementation will change the national narrative about K-12 school performance? Tell us in the comments.