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September 14, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
If you’re looking for an example of the Lake Wobegon effect (“all the children are above average”), you can’t do much better than this one.  It’s almost literal.

The survey didn’t ask about the children.  It asked about schools – schools in general and your local school.  As with “Congress / my Congressional rep,” people rated America’s schools as only so-so.  Barely a fifth of respondents gave America’s schools an above-average grade.  But when people rated their own local schools, 46% gave B’s and A’s.  The effect was even stronger among the affluent (upper tenth of the income distribution for their state) and among teachers.

The findings about the affluent are no surprise, nor are their perceptions skewed.  Schools in wealthy neighborhoods really are above average.  What’s surprising is that only 47% of the wealthy gave their local schools an above-average grade. 

The teachers, though, are presumably a representative sample, yet 64% of their schools are above average.  I can think of two explanations for the generosity of the grades they assign their own schools:
  • Self-enhancement.  Teachers have a personal stake in the rating of schools generally.  They have an even larger stake in the rating of their own school.
  • Familiarity.  We feel more comfortable with the familiar.  (On crime, people feel safer in their own neighborhoods, even the people who live in high-crime neighborhoods.)  So we rate familiar things more charitably.  For teachers, schools are something they’re very familiar with, especially their local schools.
[Research by Howell, Peterson, and West reported here.
HT: Jonathan Robinson at The Monkey Cage]

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