Colorado School Districts Part of Mediocre Picture in International Comparison

Last week I pointed you to a provocative new Rick Hess essay that asked whether education reform has paid too much attention to focusing on urban, high-poverty areas and on closing achievement gaps. Well, almost as if on cue, Jay Greene and Josh McGee write in Education Next about their new study on how suburban U.S. school districts compare internationally in math (based on most recent 2007 data):

Affluent suburban districts may be outperforming their large urban neighbors, but they fail to achieve near the top of international comparisons…. White Plains, New York, in suburban Westchester County, is only at the 39th percentile in math relative to our global comparison group. Grosse Point, Michigan, outside of Detroit, is at the 56th percentile. Evanston, Illinois, the home of Northwestern University outside of Chicago, is at the 48th percentile in math. The average student in Montgomery County, Maryland, where many of the national government leaders send their children to school, is at the 50th percentile in math relative to students in other developed countries….

It goes on, but you get the flavor. If you’re wondering about your own school district, you can check out the handy new web tool Greene and company created called The Global Report Card. All in all, it’s an interesting tool that may be worth further exploring. The findings reported by Greene and McGee do raise some cause for concern:

In four states, there is not a single traditional district with average student achievement above the 50th percentile in math. In 17 states, there is not a single traditional district with average achievement in the upper third relative to our global comparison group. And apart from charter school districts, in over half of the states, there are no more than three traditional districts in which the average achievement would be in the upper third.

One of my Education Policy Center friends decided to check out the 10 largest school districts in Colorado, to see at which percentile average students rank among their international peers. Here’s what he found:

  1. Jefferson County (48%)
  2. Denver (unclear, data presented separately for “Denver” and “District 1”)
  3. Douglas County (60%)
  4. Cherry Creek (52%)
  5. Adams 12 [listed as “Adams”] (38%)
  6. Aurora [listed as “Aurora County”] (22%)
  7. Boulder Valley (58%)
  8. Colorado Springs 11 [listed as “Colorado Springs”] (44%)
  9. St. Vrain Valley (48%)
  10. Poudre (55%)

Looks like Colorado might be one of the 17 states identified as not having “a single traditional district with average achievement in the upper third relative to our global comparison group.” If somebody can find a Colorado district at or above the 67th percentile, please let me know. Looked at this way, the state’s K-12 performance still doesn’t show terrible results, but we can certainly do better.

While we certainly shouldn’t abandon less privileged students in the quest to raise their academic performance, it is important to recognize that we need to raise the bar for middle class, suburban students, too — a point more ably made by Greg Forster on Jay Greene’s blog, of all places.