Suburban school districts falling behind

Education reform efforts have focused almost exclusively on improving big city public school systems. The problems of the Austin Independent School District are well-known to everyone. What is much less understood is that many of our affluent suburban districts are also badly in need of improvement. Suburban school districts might be performing much better than their urban neighbors, but they are barely keeping pace with student achievement in other developed countries.

This surprising discovery of sub-par outcomes in many affluent suburbs came to light as part of a large project we recently completed, The Global Report Card. We compared student achievement in virtually every one of the nearly 14,000 U.S. public school districts against the performance of students in a group of 25 developed countries. The results are available at, so people can look up their own and other school districts to see how they are doing relative to students overseas.

If they looked up Austin Independent School District, they would confirm their suspicion that student achievement there is dreadfully low. In Austin, the average student is performing at the 33rd percentile in math relative to students in other developed countries. That means that 66 percent of students in a typical developed country would be doing better than the average student in Austin.

But if they also looked up the Round Rock or Leander school districts, they might be surprised to see that those districts, despite being among our most advantaged and presumably best public school districts, are struggling to do better than the average student in other developed countries.

In Round Rock, the average student is only at the 57th percentile in math compared to students in our group of 25 developed countries. In Leander, the average student is only at the 59th percentile.

These results are better than in Austin, but they are probably below what people might expect for affluent suburbs. If students from those suburbs want to compete with students from all around the world for top paying jobs in our increasingly globalized economy, they need to be near the top of these international comparisons, not near the middle.

It is true that reading results in these suburban districts are somewhat stronger, but math provides a more meaningful comparison. Math tests are more consistent across countries than reading, and math performance is much more predictive of economic success.

It is also true that some affluent districts, such as Lake Travis and Eanes, have strong math achievement relative to students in other developed countries. But these pockets of excellence are hard to find and difficult to access. People generally think they have escaped the ills of urban public education by moving to the suburbs, but they don't usually think that only one or two suburbs actually produce excellent results.

The scarcity of excellent public school districts is not unique to the Austin area. Out of the nearly 14,000 public school districts in the United States, only 6 percent have average student math achievement that would place them in the upper third of global performance. And among the school districts serving the 50 wealthiest places with populations larger than 50,000 — places not so tiny as to be inaccessible — the average math percentile is only 52.

Suburban parents need to awake from their complacency. Education reform is something that is not only needed for large urban school districts. Most suburban public school districts also need to improve.

And who knows? If we get buy-in for serious reform among suburban elites, perhaps it will not only help suburban districts get better, but it may also finally produce the improvement urban districts have long sought. When politically powerful and influential suburbanites get behind dramatic education reform for everyone because they think their own children need it, we may see gains that decades of lip service and half-hearted reforms have failed to produce.

Greene is the 21st century professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. McGee is the vice president for public accountability initiatives at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

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