American kids aren’t dumb, after all

There’s a lot of talk about America’s failing schools. Here at Harvard, there are flyers on bulletin boards blaring that U.S. students, versus those of other developed nations, place 15th in reading, 24th in science, 30th in math (I will not reproduce it, because the information on it will then stick in your minds as true).  This morning I was flipping through Christian Century, which highlighted a contrarian blurb about these international test scores from something called Dissent. I went to look up the article in Dissent, which turns out to be a left-leaning magazine. In an article entitled “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools, it says:

Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty. And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three.

I found the data striking. A quick look at OECD data on income inequality suggests that the U.S. overall outperforms other countries that are less rich overall, but have similar poverty rates, such as Mexico and Turkey, the exception being Korea, which has some of the top scores in the world. On the TIMSS test (math and science for 8th graders), city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore and relatively small nations like Hungary (population about 10 million) do well. The only large nations that outperformed U.S. 8th graders in 2007 (the latest test) were Japan, England, and Russia. But remember that the U.S. is the world’s third-largest country by population, with 310 million citizens. Russia’s population is less than half that of America’s, Japan’s closer to one-third.

I may take some time to play with data on poverty levels and income, and compare it to test scores. I wish Dissent had done this, but it really wanted to whack big foundations like Gates and Broad and their growing influence on education policy.

Leave a Reply