[PBS NewsHour]

Parents overestimate their student’s academic progress, according to a new study

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WASHINGTON (NewsHour) — Research shows the vast majority of K-12 parents believe their kids’ academic progress is at their grade level when it is not.

To better understand the parent perception gap and how to close it, NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz spoke with two former secretaries of education, Arne Duncan, who was secretary during the Obama administration, and Margaret Spellings who served under President George W. Bush.

Editor’s note: For more resources on summer learning, visit Go Beyond Grades.

Correction: A graphic in this story says that 30% of 8th graders in Houston were proficient at reading. The correct number is 58%. We regret the error.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    New research out this week shows the vast majority of K-12 parents believe their kids are performing at grade level, when they’re actually not.

    A survey conducted in March of 2023 for the group Learning Heroes found 90 percent of parents think their kids are doing fine, but standardized test scores show otherwise. Among eighth graders, for example, just 29 percent were proficient in reading either at or above their grade level. In math, just 26 percent were considered proficient. This sheds light on what’s being called the parent perception gap.

    To help explain that gap and how to close it, I’m joined by two former secretaries of education who’ve been involved with this study. Arne Duncan was secretary during the Obama administration. He’s now the managing partner with the Emerson Collective in Chicago. And Margaret Spellings served under President George W. Bush. She’s now president and CEO of Texas 2036. That’s a nonpartisan public policy think tank.

    Welcome to you both. And thank you for joining us.

    Margaret Spellings, the big question here is, why is that gap so big? Why do so many parents think their kids are doing so much better than they actually are?

  • Margaret Spellings, Former U.S. Education Secretary:

    Well, one reason is, they see report cards and have other data from schools that is different from what we see on standardized test scores.

    And that’s why our NAEP, our national education report card, and our standardized test scores really are an important indicator for parents to understand that, along with the feedback that they get from parent report cards.

    But there’s lots that can be done. Parents can better understand where their children actually stand and also know that help is available to close that gap.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We’re going to talk about that more in just a little bit.

    But, Arne Duncan, you — we mentioned here the examples of some eighth graders. Did you see that same gap across all ages, K-12?

  • Arne Duncan, Former U.S. Education Secretary:

    You do see that gap.

    And it’s actually tougher. It’s not just a perception gap. It’s a reality gap. And it actually breaks my heart. Parents are the greatest advocates for their children. They want to see them do well and be successful. But if they don’t know if their child needs more help in reading or more help in math or whatever it might be, they don’t know what to do.

    And so the fact that we’re being dishonest, both as students, but also with their parents, we’re missing a massive opportunity to help parents help their children to catch up and close these gaps and enter high school and ultimately college ready to be successful.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The gaps are big, but, also, those proficiency numbers are alarming.

    I want to share a little bit more in detail, because you go city by city in this study. When you take a look just at reading proficiency in a few cities you looked at there, you see, in Boston, eighth graders showed a 30 percent proficiency in reading; 85 percent of their parents thought that they were doing fine. In Houston, 58 percent proficiency; 92 percent of parents thought their kids were fine.

    Sacramento County, similar numbers, 45 percent proficiency, 90 percent of parents believed their kids were proficient. And when you look at the numbers for math, they are even more alarming in so many cases.

    Margaret Spellings, the surveys of the parents were from March of 2023, as we mentioned. Those — that test data was from the end of 2022. So how much of this is just due to the pandemic?

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Well, certainly, some of it is. And that’s why we have to have kind of a sense of urgency and triage around, A, the gap, the perception and the reality gap, as Arne calls it, Secretary Duncan, may I, but also know that the resources that were sent from the federal government to states and their — to remediate these issues, those funds are expiring in the near future.

    And so the resources are available for parents to get their children help, so that kids can get caught up and recover those losses.

    A row of desks in a classroom with a backpack hanging up on the back wall
  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary Duncan, the American school system did get a huge influx of pandemic money, that funding that Secretary Spellings was just talking about, $190 billion.

    How much of that has gone towards addressing closing these gaps, bringing up those proficiency numbers?

  • Arne Duncan:

    Well, clearly not enough. And it is a time of unprecedented resources.

    There are lots of things we can debate in education, but we know high-dosage tutoring, whether it’s physically, virtually, hybrid, works well. What our children need now is more time. So, what is more time? Being tutored after school, on weekends, or summer school. Our children missed so much time during the pandemic.

    I think we’re in a sprint between April and August, April and September, the next four or five months, to close this gap as much as we can, so children can enter the next school year ready to be successful. It’s got to be a massive sense of urgency on this. It’s not something we can wait on or discuss or debate.

    We have to get to work, use those resources to help parents and help kids get where they need to be.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are some folks who look at the way the money’s been spent, and they see there are tutoring programs available. There have been virtual help lines set up.And the uptake has been pretty low in a number of places.

    Secretary Spellings, when you just look at staffing shortages, right, recent numbers from the end of last year showed 45 percent of public schools were operating without a full teaching staff. So, what can parents be advocating for, when most of them don’t seem to be taking up the virtual learning or the help lines that are there right now, and teaching staff isn’t at capacity?

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Well, the one thing that’s great about this project is, it elevates all sorts of resources that are available through the community.

    Certainly, the school district is the first place to turn. Those are programs that are aligned with the curriculum. But this Web site shows resources that are available through Girls Who Code, the YMCA, you name it, community-based organizations that may be just the right organization that can help close those gaps.

    Parents also now have information where they can understand, what are my child’s needs? Are they in reading? Are they in math? Are they third grade, eighth grade? And so let’s get smart. Let’s help parents get smarter about what they need, and then help them go find it either through school districts or community-based organizations.

    All those resources are part of this campaign and are easy to access for parents.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary Duncan, you and Margaret Spellings are putting the emphasis on summer programs and tutoring and outside help.

    So many educators tell us one of the biggest problems they face right now is mental health and that they don’t have the resources to address that. Shouldn’t we be focusing on that equally or even more than test scores right now?

  • Arne Duncan:


    For me, this is not focused on test scores. This is focused on the ability to read and to do math, to do arithmetic, to do algebra. But, again, given the massive, unprecedented influx of resources into districts from the federal level, we can absolutely help kids learn and take care of the fear and trauma and socioemotional challenges they are facing. We need that both for students and for teachers and for other adults and principals working in schools.

    But I just want to go back to your original question to Margaret. Parents aren’t taking advantage of these tutoring programs precisely because of this reality gap. They don’t understand that their children are so far behind. And, for me, this is true parental empowerment. We have lots of sort of crazy, disruptive debates about what parental empowerment — what parental empowerment means in our country.

    I think what it really means is knowing honestly where your child is, and advocating for your child to get where they need to go. This data, I think, could hopefully unlock that true parental empowerment and parental power.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings joining us tonight.

    Thank you very much. Appreciate your time.

  • Arne Duncan:

    Thank you.

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Thank you.