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Trapped in Mediocrity

Why Our Schools Aren't World-Class and What We Can Do About It

Katherine Baird

Our students aren’t learning, we’re falling behind other countries, and many of our college graduates are even functionally illiterate. We offer our kids a weak and poorly thought out curriculum; too many teachers do not make good use of classroom time and follow lesson plans that are superficial and repetitive; almost all state governments define “proficiency” at low levels of competency; and because kids with very uneven skills populate a classroom, teachers spend considerable time on review before introducing new material. This dismal picture is tempered by the fact that the hard work and dedication of countless teachers and administrators means that many students get an excellent education. But it doesn’t temper it much. As a group, even our top students are not as strong as are those in a large majority of other rich countries.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Katherine Baird, an economist, starts by clearly spelling out how our educational system is trapped in mediocrity. Yet, she doesn’t just expose where we are. She identifies the steps to get out of the trap. We need to (1) dramatically reform our education’s governance structure, (2) establish high expectations for all students, (3) provide adequate support to meet those expectations, and (4) introduce strong incentives for students to work hard in school so they do their part in meeting higher standards. Clearly, it isn’t as simple as it sounds, but Baird carefully examines each factor that has led to the current state in education and then spells out how a combination of policies will weaken the forces that keep our schools mediocre and instead make them ones worth copying
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 260Size: 6 1/4 x 9
978-1-4422-1547-4 • Hardback • August 2012 • $41.00 • (£27.95)
978-1-4422-1549-8 • eBook • August 2012 • $40.99 • (£27.95)
Katherine Baird is associate professor of economics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She received her PhD in economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and also holds an MS in agricultural economics from Michigan State University and a BA in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2008 she was a Fulbright scholar in economics at the Universidad del País Vasco in Bilbao, Spain.
Prior to beginning her career as an academic, Katie spent five years working in the field of agriculture and agricultural policy in Africa; during three of these she lived in a small rice-growing village in Mauritania’s Senegal River Valley. She also spent two years working in Washington, DC, for the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of State, and a private firm providing consulting services to federal agencies.
In addition to teaching, Katie also writes a regular column on public economics for Washington State’s second-largest newspaper, Tacoma’s The News Tribune.

Perspective of the Book

How We Compare

Measuring Student Outcomes

Plan of the Book

PART I: Setting the Stage

Chapter 1:A Historical and Comparative Perspective on the United State’s Educational System
Vocational Education
Chapter 2: Just How Low Are Our Educational Standards?
Educational Standards as Reflected in Stated Objective
Educational Requirements and the Educational Environment
How Hard is it To Succeed in School? Curriculum and Demands in the Classroom
Expectations of Student Performance
PART II: Why Low Standards Matter
Chapter 3: The Consequences of Low Expectations on Student Effort
Chapter 4: Low Standards Compromise Higher Education’s Mission
Chapter 5: Reduced Productivity and Increased Wage Disparities
Chapter 6: Low Standards Harm Those We Think Are Helped
Why and How Curriculum Matters
Importance of Classes
Information and Expectations
PART III: Why Low Educational Standards Persist
Chapter 7: The Tyranny of Too Many Voices or “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth”
Local Control and Educational Standards: A Theory
Local Control and Educational Standards: Practice
The Organization of Schools
Poor Coordination and Inconsistency
Plausible Deniability
Symbolic Compliance
Lack of Uniformity

Chapter 8: Exit, Voice and the “Something for Everyone” Curriculum
Private Schools
Location as a Form of Exit
Parental Pressure as a Form of Exit
Exit Through Coursework

Chapter 9: Soft America Meets Hard America: The Perceived High Costs and Low Benefits of High Expectations

PART IV: The Way Forward
Chapter 10: Getting From Here to There
School Choice
Schools, the Achievement Gap, and Funding
Social Policy
The K-12 Higher Education Gap
Vocational Education

Our high-school and college dropout rates are appalling, and the achievement levels of those students who remain in school don’t come close to matching the levels of students in other developed nations. Too many American high-school graduates can’t read, and too many college graduates can’t appreciate nuanced writing. Baird, economist and academic, details the problem of low standards in American public schools, then goes beyond the statistics to address why it is that the standards are so low. Why do so few elementary schools insist that students begin to learn algebra and geometry rather than wait until high school? She laments that education policies and reform are aimed at the symptoms rather than the root causes. Baird begins with a historical overview of how public education policy has been developed and goes on to detail the social and economic cost to the nation of having such low academic standards, including lower productivity and greater wage inequality. Baird offers specific solutions, including reforming governance of school systems to reduce bureaucracy, setting high national standards, providing support to schools serving disadvantaged students, and providing strong incentives to students to work hard.


Dr. Baird’s work is an ambitious synthesis of factors contributing to a problem affecting all of us. It is one she has not only elucidated, but also meticulously documented in a clear and highly readable style. The reader is brought along with summarizations; each premise builds on the last. It is a monumental effort that deserves the attention of educators at all levels. The next phase—i.e. the implementation—requires Dr. Baird’s deft hand as well.
New York Journal of Books

The latest addition to the swelling chorus singing the tune that ‘governance is a major part of what’s wrong with American K–12 education’ is University of Washington economist Katherine Baird, who has just published a perceptive and worthwhile book on how to harmonize our discordant school system. The author brings some unique economics-style analysis to bear, including identification of the ‘two principal shortcomings’ of today’s governance structure, which she dubs the ‘Principal-Agent Problem.’ The ‘Principal’ is ‘society as a whole, but parents and students in particular’ (that is, those who benefit from the system), while the ‘Agent’ is the mix of adult interests, structures, and organizations that run the system. The Agent is supposed to advance the interests of the Principal but mainly doesn’t, in part because the Agent has way too many levels, components, and competing interests. Baird’s remedy is to raise standards radically—national standards—and decentralize control of the system to the building level.

The Education Gadfly Weekly

Baird (economics, Univ. of Washington, Tacoma) presents the major reasons for her conclusion that US public schools are "trapped in mediocrity" and less than "world-class." As an economist, she focuses on economic policy and governance issues. Baird favors a national approach to solving education dilemmas, despite constitutional commitment to state-level control. Above all, she criticizes low academic standards and expectations for students and the "perceived high costs and low benefits" of US schooling....This book is worth reading for the important questions it raises. Summing Up: Recommended. Undergraduate, graduate, research, and professional collections.

This roadmap to raising aspirations, improving delivery and aligning governance and funding with improved performance builds on the experience of today's highest performing and most rapidly improving education systems.
Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on education policy to the OECD's Secretary-General and OECD Deputy Director of Education

Baird challenges us to overcome educational mediocrity by setting powerful goals and creating the incentives and policies to achieve them. She demonstrates that the cost of educational mediocrity and failure is much higher than is conventionally acknowledged and provides a reasoned and energetic strategy to attain educational success for our students and society.
Henry Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics & Education, Columbia University

Katherine Baird has given us a lucid account of what is wrong with k-12 education in the United States and what we can do about it. She avoids the common temptation to focus on one problem and one magic bullet that would fix it, instead showing how the various issues are intertwined and how other countries have found solutions. Unless fundamental structural defects are addressed by promoting both school-level autonomy and common national standards, she points out, simply raising the competence and status of teachers or improving curriculum will not produce the dramatic improvements that are needed.
Charles L. Glenn, Boston University

Did You Know?
  • One-third of college students believe that they should get a B just for showing up for class.

  • Half of our high schools students spend an hour or less each week studying outside of class.

  • Our younger students do about as well as children in similar countries such as Canada, France, Japan, Germany, and Italy. But the longer our children stay in school, the further behind they fall.

  • Almost half of all math classes offered at some of our nation’s community college are remedial courses.

  • Students (or their parents) pay an extra $1 billion a year in extra tuition payments for remedial courses that don't count toward college graduation; and taxpayers pay $2 billion a year in tax subsidies for those courses.

  • High school matters. Eighth graders who are weak readers are just as likely to drop out of high school as they are to graduate with an honor’s degree.

  • If several decades ago we had enacted successful educational reforms that raised our students’ achievement levels to those found in South Korea or Finland now, our nation’s gross domestic product would be about 10 percent higher today.

  • American youth from disadvantaged backgrounds have especially low academic skills when compared with their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

  • Some of the reforms we've enacted during the past few decades, such as school choice, AP courses, alternative graduation tests, have actually prevented us from enacting meaningful changes.