Commentary: Lower Merion schools aren't as good as people think

The main entrance at Lower Merion High School.

 

Nearly everyone agrees that American schools have serious problems, but many erroneously believe these problems are exclusively found in urban districts. I’m not surprised. It seems most Americans believe that when it comes to achievement gaps, it’s really a black problem, though they would rarely say that publicly.

On the other hand, in elite suburbs like Lower Merion, where the wealthy and politically connected live, it is assumed that the school district and the education it provides are world class. Agreed, Lower Merion looks great when compared to Philadelphia schools. For decades there has been much hand-wringing over the achievement gap between poor and wealthy districts. But is that a fair comparison? 

While much has been said and written about the national achievement gap, hardly any attention is given to the growing global achievement gap affecting wealthy school districts like Lower Merion. According to recently released test scores from the Program for International Student Assessment, affluent suburban American districts like Lower Merion were just, well, mediocre. Massachusetts was the only U.S. state to score in the top 20.

Overall, American 15-year-olds ranked a sad 31 out of 35 in math among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The top ten for math were Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, China, Korea, Switzerland, Estonia, and Canada.

With all of its resources, one wonders why the Lower Merion School District isn’t world class. When I asked district educators, they argued that you really can’t compare Lower Merion, or the United States, with any top-performing country because of, you know, demographics and cultural differences. Really.

Even if you adjust for demographics and poverty, I believe American students, even those in Lower Merion, would perform poorly on the PISA and other international benchmarks, like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Even Lower Merion’s top students score below average students in many Asian countries.  

Undoubtedly, Lower Merion’s Common Core math and language arts curriculum only compounds the problem. These standards emphasize conceptual learning over mastery of procedures and facts. Like most of the nation, LMSD is steeped in the ongoing backlash against the “drill and kill” camp in favor of “conceptual” learning. (The child can articulate that multiplication is repeated addition, but he doesn’t know the multiplication tables). For sure, there’s a place for conceptual and project-based learning, but isn’t there a sweet spot that combines both traditions?

No amount of Engineering for Kids or Lego Clubs can guarantee a child has acquired a concept fully, let alone mastered the math facts. Unless of course, you are one of the 65 percent of LMSD parents who are spending outrageous sums of money and time on enrichment, tutoring, supplementation, and remediation during their child’s elementary, middle, and high school years.

Lower Merion is bursting at the seams with tutoring and enrichment centers like Kumon, Huntington Learning Center, C2 Education, Mathnasium, Center for Educational Services, and private tutors galore at a cost anywhere from $50 to $120 per hour. That means Pennsylvania’s wealthiest and most coveted school district is getting and taking credit for academic work it’s not doing.

So, why are LMSD parents running increasingly to after-school enrichment centers and tutors to supplement their award-winning schools if they are so good? That’s a question that begs for a through explanation.

Sorry, Lower Merion, you’re not the setting of a Garrison Keillor novel.

Kimberly Garrison (kimberly@kimberlygarrison.com)  is the parent of a child in the Lower Merion School District and writes a fitness column for the Daily News.