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.