When the Best Is Mediocre: Developed Countries Our Most Affluent Suburbs

By Greene, Jay P.; McGee, Josh B. | Education Next, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

When the Best Is Mediocre: Developed Countries Our Most Affluent Suburbs


Greene, Jay P., McGee, Josh B., Education Next


American education has problems, almost everyone is willing to concede, but many think those problems are mostly concentrated in our large urban school districts. In the elite suburbs, where wealthy and politically influential people tend to live, the schools are assumed to be world-class.

Unfortunately, what everyone knows is wrong. Even the most elite suburban school districts often produce results that are mediocre when compared with those of our international peers. 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.

We developed the Global Report Card (GRC) to facilitate such a comparison. The GRC enables users to compare academic achievement in math and reading between 2004 and 2007 for virtually every public school district in the United States with the average achievement in a set of 25 other countries with developed economies that might be considered our economic peers and sometime competitors. The main results are reported as percentiles of a distribution, which indicates how the average student in a district performs relative to students throughout the advanced industrialized world. A percentile of 60 means that the average student in a district is achieving better than 59.9 percent of the students in our global comparison group. (Readers can find all of the results of the Global Report Card at www.globalreportcard.org. The web site contains a full description of the method by which we calculated the results. For a summary, see the methodology sidebar.)

For the purposes of this article, we focus on the 2007 math results, although the GRC contains information for both math and reading between 2004 and 2007. We focus on 2007 because it is the most recent data set, and we focus on math because it is the subject that provides the best comparison across countries and is most closely correlated with economic growth. Readers should feel free to consult the GRC web site to find reading results as well as results for other years.

The Example of Beverly Hills

It is critically important to compare exclusive suburban districts against the performance of students in other developed countries, as these districts are generally thought to be high-performing. The most wealthy and politically powerful families have often sought refuge from the ills of our education system by moving to suburban school districts. Problems exist in large urban districts and in low-income rural areas, elites often concede, but they have convinced themselves that at least their own children are receiving an excellent education in their affluent suburban districts.

Unfortunately, student achievement in many affluent suburban districts is worse than parents may think, especially when compared with student achievement in other developed countries. Take for example Beverly Hills, California. The city has a median family income of $102,611 as of 2000, which places it among the top 100 wealthiest places in the United States with at least 1,000 households. The Beverly Hills population is 85.1 percent white, 7.1 percent Asian, and only 1.8 percent black and 4.6 percent Hispanic.

The city is virtually synonymous with luxury. A long-running television show featured the wealth and advantages of Beverly Hills high-school students (as well as their overly dramatic personal lives). If Beverly Hills is not the refuge from the ills of the education system that elite families are seeking, it's not clear what would be.

But when we look at the Global Report Card results for the Beverly Hills Unified School District, we don't see top-notch performance. The math achievement of the average student in Beverly Hills is at the 53rd percentile relative to our international comparison group. …

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