Is parental satisfaction enough?

Recently, in Fordham’s Flypaper, Michael Petrilli reflects on the outcomes we should be seeking as a result of school reform. He asks if parental satisfaction is really enough. Excerpts from the article appear below:

If parental satisfaction is all we’re after, it shouldn’t be terribly hard to achieve. Polls find that most parents are already happy with their schools. The most recent survey by Education Next, for instance, finds that 62 percent of parents would give their own kid’s present school a grade of A or B.

Yet a closer examination of America’s educational outcomes indicates that our schools are mediocre almost across the board. The math and science skills of our affluent students are middling compared to affluent students in other countries; our children of college graduates do so-so compared to the children of college graduates elsewhere. Everyone talks about the achievement gap in America—between rich and poor students, or white, black, and Latino kids. But there’s another gap, between the lofty perceptions Americans have of their own children’s schools and the objective truth, at least as measured by results.

Why so many parents, including affluent and well-educated ones, are satisfied with schools that provide mediocre outcomes is something of a mystery. Perhaps they want to believe their kids’ schools are better than they actually are to avoid feeling guilty about paying for that kitchen renovation or new SUV instead of private-school tuition. Or perhaps they appreciate other forms of educational excellence—strong sports programs, caring teachers, or engaging extracurricular activities—that don’t necessarily translate into improved test scores, higher graduation rates, and college success.

So maybe parents don’t prioritize measurable learning outcomes. But conservatives—indeed all policymakers—should prioritize them. It may be a cliché to say that “children are the future,” but plenty of empirical evidence demonstrates that a well-educated citizenry is more likely to be wealthy and upwardly mobile. Studies by Hoover economist Eric Hanushek, for instance, demonstrate a strong relationship between the cognitive ability of a nation’s population and economic growth. He and his colleagues have estimated that bringing all states’ performance up to the level of Minnesota and other top-performing states would result in an average increase of 9 percent in GDP over the next eight decades, creating trillions of dollars and easily solving America’s coming fiscal challenges.

New studies by Hanushek and his colleagues might explain why. In the United States, the economic “return to skills”—the benefit to individuals in terms of higher pay based on what they know or can do—is higher than in most other advanced nations. Because of our freer economy and lighter labor-market regulations, education really is what helps people get ahead. At this point, it should be clear to everyone that Americans with low skill levels are at grave risk of being left behind.

Education is both a private good and a public good, and a society has a legitimate interest in the education of its next generation—the more so when public dollars pay for it. Parental satisfaction is an important objective, but far from the only one.

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