Educational Tunnel Vision

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One of the interesting things about educational reform is that most people like their school okay--it's just all those other schools they're worried about. In the minds of its main constituents (students, parents and teachers), our educational system is sort of like Lake Woebegone--all the schools are above average.


In reality, of course, there's a lot of substandard education out there.  Katherine Mangu-Ward explores the reasons we don't realize it when it's our school that's underperforming:

NBC, the Gates Foundation, and a bunch of other folks have put together a pretty nifty little school data project: The Education Nation Scorecard. Put in a school, and it spits out a handy-dandy graphical interface (thanksFathom!) that tells you how the school stacks up against other schools, the district against other districts, the state against other states, and the country against other countries. You can get the comparisons for graduation rates, along with a variety of test scores for various grade levels.

Just for giggles, I put in my alma mater T.C. Williams, the only public high school in Alexandria, Virginia. Here's a screen grab of the district-level results:

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The interesting thing about making lots of data readily accessible: You learn things you didn't know that you didn't know. I was aware that my school had some serious failings. (In fact, it recently won the label"persistently low achieving.") But as a student there, I thought the experience was pretty OK. In fact, most people think their neighborhood public school is pretty OK, or even good.

That's because they don't know better. As a student at T.C. Williams, I could see that the school was relatively clean and relatively safe. I got a good education there. What I couldn't see was that all around me students were failing to learn to read and write, that they were dropping out at higher rates than almost anywhere else in the state. Nor could I see that Virginia's testing standards were significantly less rigorous than most states, making the failure to meet those standards all the more depressing. And if you don't know your school sucks, you're not going to complain.

The fact that schools are so geographically concentrated has to contribute to this.  In New York, people tend to be acutely aware of the quality hierarchy--not only in private schools, which drew students from all over the city, but in public schools.  That's because most kids have at least some choice about which school they attend--which means they know lots of people who go to other schools, and have a good idea of the relative difficulties.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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