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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 22, 2015 at 5:00 AM

U.S. schools: Glass half full or draining fast? Actually, both

The Iceberg Effect in U.S. schools. Screen shot from the Superintendents Roundtable report.

The Iceberg Effect in U.S. schools. Screen shot from the Superintendents Roundtable report.

Americans have grown accustomed to the conventional wisdom that says our students, as a whole, don’t rank on the international stage — not as science-savvy, driven or literate as those in other developed countries.

But a coalition of school district superintendents say this belief seriously misinterprets the evidence. Considering the widespread poverty, violence, income inequality and other social stressors that U.S. kids negotiate en route to Graduation Day, the National Superintendents Roundtable says we actually perform amazingly well.

“We are insisting that a single number does not do justice to the complexity of any educational system, and particularly not to the U.S. system,” said James Harvey, executive director of the Roundtable. An Irish national, Harvey emigrated to America as a teenager, and said he likely would have dropped out of school were it not for the “second-chance” U.S. system.

On Tuesday, his Seattle-based group, composed of 100 chief educators from around the country, released “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect,” a report ranking America against Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, Finland and China on a series of metrics key to school outcomes. They go far beyond the usual test-score horse race.

For instance: the U.S. tops all of those nations in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees, spends more per pupil on schooling and consistently turns out solid results on fourth-grade reading.

And yet.

We also lead the developed world in child poverty, generational poverty, income inequality and infant mortality, right along with China.

Our support for families — through free preschool, for instance — rates as “grim” when compared with the other nations.

We also trump the rest on social stresses that affect kids — like violent deaths, drug overdoses, teenage moms and a high population of foreign-born students who have complex language needs.

In many neighborhoods, notes the report, “children witnessed shootings and beatings as if they were ordinary, everyday events.”

Tacoma may not be the first place Americans think of when reading that description, but 63 percent of students there are low-income. So to schools Superintendent Carla Santorno, the true message of Harvey’s report is: those who want better test scores must consider the ways this country addresses its poor.

“If we don’t totally change the way we support children and families,” she said, “it is going to continue to be difficult to make change in schools.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: school outcomes

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