by Kurt NY
One of the few things on which modern-day conservatives and progressives can agree these days is the parlous state of American public education. After all, believing such feeds into the prime preoccupations of both ideologies – liberals like to believe government is perpetually underfunded and starved for resources and those of us on the right tend to look at anything to do with government as inefficient, misguided, and possibly dangerous. Yet how bad are things for American students?
One of the metrics most talked about when examining the shortcomings of American K-12 education is the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a program run out of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) wherein samples of students from virtually all developed countries take forms of the same standardized test to measure comparable academic achievement. And the results for the United States are pretty dismal – 31 out of 74 countries tested in Math, 23rd in Science, and 17th in Reading for the 2009 series of exams (Source). Frankly, for the amount we spend per pupil on education compared to the rest of the world, we stink, with our roughly $91,700 per head per year eclipsed only by Switzerland (Source).
We’ve all heard of these results, and all of us pretty much accept that we have a major problem in our K-12 education system. So there’s been a decades-long push to raise standards for our kids, with more rigorous testing, coupled with a move from the right for more school choice, the assumption being that American public schools are sewers of mediocrity, crippled by teacher union rules and politically correct curricula devoid of depth and rigor. And, if the example in New York State is any guide, come budget time, we all get bombarded with reminders of how our kids are falling behind the rest of the world and we have to step up our game should we wish to complete with foreign workforces far more educated than ours.
But how true is that? We’ve all heard how badly we stack up against the rest of the world, especially tiny Finland, which is the perennial leader for all European associated states, while spending a third less per pupil than do we. The media tells us we are failing, the left tells us we are failing because we just won’t spend enough, and we conservatives are all too willing to believe it all, since we’re skeptical of the whole process anyway. And there’s a lot of empirical evidence of incompetent teachers, counterproductive union rules, and politically correct pablum or even complete fabrication masquerading as education.
Suburban parents look at the figures and are horrified, thinking their schools are failing them. For which they demand more spending to correct those manifest failures. Government launches new initiatives, such as Common Core, with the intent of raising standards since our students are obviously getting by with too little effot.
But we’re looking at it the wrong way. The average American reading score in 2009 was 500, above the OECD average of 493, only beaten by 6 out of 33 OECD states. Our math scores were less satisfactory, at 487 vs 496, and our science scores 502 vs 501 (Source: pp4-5). Our average scores are not world beaters but they’re not that far off our competitors.
But what is not readily apparent is far more significant. The average for White American students was 525 and that for Asian Americans was 541, in a test for which the top score, that of Shanghai, China, was 549 (Source: p29). It is only with African Americans and Hispanics that the US average dips. Compared to the rest of the world, American white and Asian students outperform almost everybody.
There is also a high correlation between poverty and performance, with students attending schools in which fewer than 10% receive free or reduced lunch, American kids averaged 551, the best scores in the world, with students approximating the average score of 500 once they reach the 25%-49.9% level (Source: Table 6 p30). School performance dips with poverty.
Which is important because the average poverty rate for the OECD was 11%, while comparable figures for the US that year were 17% (Source). So we underperform our global competitors because of poverty and ethncity. In areas in which poverty is low, we outperform everybody, and even were we to ignore poverty and focus strictly on ethinicity, Americans of Caucasion or Asian descent outperform almost everybody.
So when we obsess on test scores and focus on raising the bar on everyone, we are focusing on the wrong things. Raising standards for everyone and failing increasing numbers of students in order to goad school districts to improve, essentially throwing money at the problem, are misguided, because many of the students on whom we are focusing are already highly competitive globally. To boost performance, we need to concentrate on those schools with high concentrations of poverty or ethnic minorities, an entirely different proposition. • (5268 views)