California’s Middle-Class Schools Still Not As Good As You Think

Recently, I gave a seminar presentation on my research on underperforming regular public schools in middle-class and more affluent neighborhoods in California, which allowed me to do some updates based on the most recent data.

The seminar, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, focused on the impact of government central planning on communities.

Our panel’s moderator was John Merrifield, professor of economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a leading economic expert on school choice.

In my presentation, I cited Prof. Merrifield’s incisive observation: “since the political process decides textbooks, curriculum, and many practices for entire regions, student body composition may be the only noteworthy difference between the attendance area choices.”

Thus, because students from all demographic groups are exposed to this centrally planned uniformity, the quality of student performance is more uniform than many in the public suspect.

Yes, many low-income students perform poorly, but these centrally planned education practices ensure the underperformance of many middle-class students.

At the seminar, I discussed the findings of my groundbreaking 2007 book Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.

In that book I looked at the performance of California regular public schools that had two-thirds or more of their student populations that were non-low-income.

I wanted to see how many of these predominantly non-low-income schools had at least one grade-level where the majority of students failed to perform at the proficient level on California’s state math or English test.

Originally, I thought we might find a few dozen schools that met that low-performance benchmark.

However, it turned out that a lot of predominantly non-low-income schools—nearly 300—met that criterion.

One school that my research assistant Rachel Chaney and I found was Prospect High School, which is located in the city of Saratoga in Silicon Valley.

At the time we did the book, the median home price in the zip code in which the school was located was $1.6 million.

Eight out of 10 of the students at the school were from non-low-income families.

Yet, despite these background factors, 55 percent of tenth graders and 54 percent of eleventh graders failed to perform at the proficient level on the state English test.

Worse, 77 percent of students taking the state geometry test failed to score at the proficient level, while 63 percent taking the state algebra 2 exam failed to hit the proficient mark.

Even today, after California has changed and lowered its academic standards and instituted a new testing system, more than half of Prospect High students still fail to meet grade-level standards in math.

Overall, years after the publication of our Not as Good as You Think book, many California middle-class students continue to underachieve.

On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade math test, a majority of California’s non-low-income students—53 percent—failed to score at the proficient level on the exam.

The results were nearly as bad in reading.  On the NAEP eighth-grade reading exam, nearly half of the state’s non-low-income students—49 percent—failed to score at proficiency.

Thus, the regular public school system is continuing to fail not just low-income students, but large numbers of middle-class students as well.

The conclusion of my Not as Good as You Think book applies as strongly today as it did a dozen years ago: “Middle-class parents in California are now on notice that their schools are coming up short in educating their children.  It is up to them to demand [school-choice] options that they can use to escape the trap in which they and their children now find themselves.”

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and author of the new book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top