Education, and Our Honors Kids Versus Theirs

Kevin Drum had a post about educational achievement and how the United States isn’t doing as bad as popular wisdom would lead you to believe:

These figures come from Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, and they show how American kids have done on international math tests compared to kids from eleven other advanced countries. First, here’s the raw data:

The circled numbers show how American students compared to the average of the entire dozen countries. In 1964, we were 0.35 standard deviations below the mean. In the most recent tests, we were only 0.06 and 0.18 standard deviations below the mean. In other words, our performance had improved…

Now, we’re still below average among these dozen countries, so this is hardly a glorious result. But we aren’t doing any worse than we did in the supposed glory days of the 50s and 60s. We’re doing better. And as Mathews says, “If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.”

Maybe so. One thing that’s pretty clear, though, is that America does a terrible job of educating low-income students.

This is all true. Another way of stating it poses a different problem.

Around 2005 I worked in DC for a month, doing a small project related to financing, and through where I worked I got to meet a lot of (non-movement) conservative education policy wonks. Many of them were former military analysts who, RAND-style, had moved over to “policy” work. Over drinks I brought up our country’s “education crisis.” And they pointed out that there wasn’t really a crisis across the board;  the numbers aren’t as bad as the normal narrative and were in fact improving.

And then someone told me something that has since stuck with me: “Look, our honors kids are as smart, if not smarter, than their honors kids.”  Their being other country’s students.  As far as I can tell from the data, that’s a true story. Our honors kids are as smart as any other country’s honors kids.

People approach the thorny topic of education with all kinds of biases and political assumptions and conclusions, but I’ve always wondered how much that statement drives some people’s arguments, conservative or otherwise, about our educational system. As long as we can generate a competitive mass among the top 10% of students, the rest can make due with what they can get. It’s not what I believe at all, but it may explain why the education debate takes some forms over other forms.   And why some groups aren’t really worried about it as much as other groups.

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8 Responses to Education, and Our Honors Kids Versus Theirs

  1. Dave says:

    I’ve been in the education business a long time, and I’ve always been appalled at how little most parents expect of their kids. Because the sad truth is that no school can overcome deficiencies at home. Or deficiencies between the ears, either. Both of my kids have been exceptionally successful both academically & professionally, but one of them is whole lot smarter than the other, learns faster, & is following a completely different career path.

  2. Pingback: The health of education in the U.S. | The Observatory

  3. robk says:

    It would also be interesting to know how the top 10% use their skills. Do we have a bias towards those students choosing say finance over medicine or engineering?

    • Tim says:

      I would definitely like to see data in that regard, haven’t been able to find much myself though there’s definitely a bias towards finance.

  4. laudyms says:

    I actually remember 1964. In fact I remember circa 1957 and the introduction of standardized testing. One thing I’m quite sure of: what I knew in the forth grade would get me a high school diploma today. Performing on a standardized test is a form of regurgitation- and warm spit is about all that’s worth.

    That “top 10%” you’re so proud of is coming up with one suicidal high-tech inanity after another. See: “Genetic engineering brings cloned crops closer” They are over-educated fools on a global scale.

  5. What I have heard and read from those in education, like my brother and father before him, is that like income the middle has declined. The top is closer to 20%, there is a bottom 20% and much bigger among minorities like African Americans especially, and the bigger 50-60% in the middle are doing much worse relatively than they did in the 60’s. The great decline started early 70’s.

    What confounds me is why? All this debate and so little agreement. For so frigging long, my father was an english teacher in the 60’s to the 90’s, my brother an english teacher from the 90’s on, and they are mystified themselves as to what happened to the students.

    • laudyms says:

      What I would suggest is that popular culture (with a strong perception management component) has overwhelmed both family and community input. What start out as curious children end up as consumers with a sense of entitlement and an ever-shortening attention span (basically useless to themselves or anyone else).

      A short perusal of the work of Edward Louis Bernays may convince one that this has been quite intentional.

  6. Interesting post. When I teach business statistics, the thing I stress the most is that you can be mislead easily – or extremely mislead – if you only look at one summary statistic to describe ALL of the data. And the same often goes even if you look at two, even though the two may sound impressive like mean and standard deviation.

    To really understand the data and not be mislead, you should look at it, when feasible, from many angles, especially with percentiles and a histogram. If you look at the percentiles and a histogram it’s very very hard to be mislead. You typically see what’s going on very quickly and accurately.

    Of course, sometimes you just only have the one summary statistic, the mean or median, but you may also have good ex-ante evidence, logic, that the whole distribution is pretty normal, or standard, in shape.

    In any case, it appears to be true that our top 10% or 5% are really some of the best in the world, smart and educated as well as creative and flexible. I remember when a Chinese PhD student I once knew expressed what he said was the Chinese attitude, surprise at how poorly educated the average American was, but, “When you have a smart American, he’s really smart.”

    Notwithstanding, we really hurt ourselves when we neglect the vast majority; we make our country far less productive and wealthy. And far less pleasant, and more like a third world country where the rich live behind walls. This is much truer today than it was decades ago, when education was much less important to productivity and wealth.

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