The 80 Percent Solution

Per continuing blog debate about No Child Left Behind, Kevin Drum observes:

What really bugs me is that politically we’re forced to create (and fund) a system that applies to every school system in America even though we all know perfectly well that 80% of our school systems are basically OK and could probably be left alone. It’s the other 20% — the low-income schools located largely in urban inner cities — that need help.

That’s close to true, but the way it goes off the mark is very important. Setting your impoverished inner-city schools aside, there are two kinds of ways the other schools could be considered “basically fine.” One would be that taking advantage of their more favorable financial situation and the fact that they’re not actually drowning in children from bleak socioeconomic circumstances, they do a good job of educating all the students who come through their doors — even those who do come from bleak socioeconomic circumstances. Call those, “Type A” good schools. The other kind of good school would be one that just has so few students coming from bleak socioeconomic circumstances that it’s average performance level looks pretty good, even though some students are doing no better than the kids in the bad inner-city schools. Call those, “Type B” good schools.

One of the things NCLB does is require schools to report data based on fairly detailed socioeconomic subgroups. It lets you, in other words, distinguish between a Type A school and a Type B school. This drives a lot of the opposition. Most students at a Type B school are going to be doing fine, and their parents aren’t going to be enthusiastic about a process that labels their school as in need of improvement. What’s more, insofar as achieving that improvement might involve concentrating their efforts on helping a socioeconomically disadvantaged minority within the school, the parents of the non-disadvantaged majority may have legitimate reason to believe that their interests are being shortchanged.