After reviewing test scores from past generations, Kevin Drum says that the "one thing you cannot say, unless you torture the numbers beyond recognition, is that kids today are more poorly educated than kids of the past two generations." In short:
We have plenty of failing schools, and we should be doing a lot more to figure out how to fix them. It's a disgrace for a rich country like the United States to be failing so many of its kids. At the same time, taken as a whole, the American educational system isn't in decline. That's something you don't hear very often because there are a lot of interest groups who are invested in a narrative of educational failure. But the data just doesn't back them up.
Yglesias chimes in:
An interesting thing about the politics of this is that polls continually show that Americans rate the schools in their own communities quite highly, even while having a dark view of the school system as a whole. I take this as a sign that on some level people actually know the good news about American education. There are still lots of kids—especially poor kids whose parents have weak education backgrounds or kids experiencing a lot of disruption in their home life—who aren't doing as well enough, but the trends are pretty clearly on the upswing.