Long Tailed Schooling
At the same time, my impression—based in part on hard data, but data that is now about fifteen years out of data—is that the average quality of American K-12 schooling had declined since then. A little googling found data on SAT scores from 1967-2004, adjusted to allow for renorming; over that period the average verbal score fell by thirty-five points, the math rose by two points. Of course, some of that might reflect changes over time in how many students took the test.
This suggests an interesting question: Is the dispersion of quality of K-12 schooling increasing? Are the best schools getting better (or more numerous) and the worst worse (or more numerous)? Do any of my readers know of data supporting or contradicting that conjecture?
It's relevant, among other things, to the ongoing issue of the dispersion of income, apparently increasing. Quite a long time ago the authors of The Bell Curve expressed concern that one result of an increasingly meritocratic society was an increase in assortive mating, increased correlation between innate ability and status, hence an increased division between social groups. In the old days, they argued, the students who went to Harvard and the students who went to Podunk U. differed a lot in parental income and status, not so much in innate ability. As the system got better at identifying kids who were poor but smart and offering them scholarships to Harvard, an opportunity to become doctors, lawyers, or professors, it increased the odds that high status people would not only believe they were smarter than those lower down but be right—with potentially unattractive social consequences.
If they were correct, it would not be surprising if the K-12 schools, public and private, that serve the upper end of the income and status distribution were getting better while the schools serving the lower end were getting worse—as measured by the quality of schooling provided, itself in large part a function of the characteristics of the students being schooled.
I should probably add, at a tangent to this, a note of skepticism that working students harder, one of the points I mentioned at the beginning of this, results in getting them better educated. Some years back, I attended a reunion of my high school at which members of the current staff took the opportunity to tell the alumni what a good job the school was now doing. One of their central points was the amount of the students' time being consumed.
My suspicion was that what I was hearing was "The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands" theory of education. Keep the kids busy enough and they won't have time to do drugs or get pregnant.
I doubt it works. It might just result in eating up time they could have used to educate themselves. Reading science fiction, arguing politics, playing board games, even playing D&D or World of Warcraft are, I suspect, more educational than homework given for the purpose of keeping kids busy.