What Is the Quality of America’s Schools?

Each year, parents responding to the Phi Delta Kappan poll report high levels of satisfaction with their kids’ education. Asked to assign letter grades to their children’s schools, the vast majority of parents—generally around 70 percent—issue As and Bs. If those ratings were compiled the way a student’s grade point average is calculated, the public schools would collectively get a B.

When asked to rate the nation’s schools, however, respondents are far less sanguine. Reflecting on public schools in general, a similar share of respondents—roughly 70 percent—confer a C or D. Again calculated as a GPA, America’s schools get a C or C-.

So which is it? Are public schools generally meeting Americans’ expectations? Or are they teetering on the brink of failure?

This may seem like an academic exercise. After all, school quality is what it is, regardless of perception. But, as it turns out, this gap in perceptions is a matter of tremendous importance.

Consider the impact on policy. If the nation’s schools are generally doing well, it doesn’t make much sense to disrupt them. But if they are in a state of decline, disruption takes on an entirely new meaning. Seizing on the presumed failures of the education system, reform advocates have pushed hard for contentious policies—expansion of charter schools, for instance, or the use of value-added measures of teacher effectiveness—that might have less traction in a more positive policy climate.

Perception also shapes the decisions people make about where to enroll their children. If the quality of public education is generally poor, then parents must compete for a small number of adequate schools—a competition that will be won by those with the greatest access to resources. As research reveals, residential segregation by…

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