How well are Virginia’s public schools preparing students for competition in a global marketplace increasingly dominated by the knowledge economy? Most people would say pretty well. Sure, there are pockets of dysfunction in inner cities and poor, rural counties but our suburban schools do pretty well… especially in Northern Virginia where local governments are willing to tax heavily to invest in higher quality education.
How well does that perception stand up to reality? Not very well, according to a new report, “When the Best Is Mediocre,” published by Education Next. Instead of subjecting a city or county’s educational achievement numbers to national comparison, the Global Report Card (GRC) subjects it to a comparison with other developed countries with roughly comparable levels of development and wealth.
“Even the most elite suburban school districts often produce results that are mediocre when compared with those of our international peers,” write Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee. “Our best school districts may look excellent alongside large urban districts, the comparison state accountability systems encourage, but that measure provides false comfort. America’s elite suburban students are increasingly competing with students outside the United States for economic opportunities, and a meaningful assessment of student achievement requires a global, not a local, comparison.”
There are a handful of U.S. school districts where excellence prevails. The average student in the Pelham school district in Massachusetts, for instance, stands at the 95th percentile in math internationally. But most districts show a mediocre performance , if not an outright dismal one.
Let’s take Fairfax County as an example. Although the county does have challenges, including a large English as Second Language population, it has some of the best schools in the country and is widely perceived as one of the best school districts in the state. The average student in Fairfax County would perform better than 62% of the students in the United States in math tests — but better than only 49% of students internationally. In Henrico, the affluent suburban county where I live, the average student would out-perform 59% of students nationally but only 47% internationally.
The average student in the city of Petersburg, serving a mostly poor and minority student body, would outperform only 26% of students internationally. No surprise there. But in Loudoun County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the entire country, the average student would out-perform only 51%. (For the most part, Virginia schools perform somewhat better in international comparisons on reading scores than math — but math is the language of science, engineering and technology so critical for international competitiveness.)
Use this interactive feature to compare your school district to state, national and international averages.
It’s time that Virginia gets serious about school reform. We understand the implications for global competitiveness. We talk about the problem a lot. Then we tinker at the margins. Nothing serious is happening. We are already failing the current generation of young people in this state. Are we destined to fail the next one as well?