Middle-class American children attending well-financed schools outscore nearly all other countries. But our overall scores are unspectacular because we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty.Rich schools are good schools: the very assumption that led me to overspend on a house in an overspending town.
Maybe I should write a letter to the editor.
Here are Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann:
White students. The overall news is sobering. Some might try to comfort themselves by saying the [achievement] problem is limited to large numbers of students from immigrant families, or to African American students and others who have suffered from discrimination....
...[L]et us consider the performance of white students for whom the case of discrimination cannot easily be made. Twenty-four countries have a larger percentage of highly accomplished students than the 8 percent achieving at that level among the U.S. white student population in the Class of 2009. Looking at just white students places the U.S. at a level equivalent to what all students are achieving in the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Poland. Seven percent of California’s white students are advanced, roughly the percentage for all Lithuanian students.
Children of parents with college degrees. Another possibility is that schools help students reach levels of high accomplishment if parents are providing the necessary support. To explore this possibility, we assumed that students who reported that at least one parent had graduated from college were likely to be given the kind of support that is needed for many to reach high levels of achievement. Approximately 45 percent of all U.S. students reported that at least one parent had a college degree.
The portion of students in the Class of 2009 with a college-graduate parent who are performing at the advanced level is 10.3 percent. When compared to all students in the other PISA countries, this advantaged segment of the U.S. population was outranked by students in 16 other countries. Nine percent of Illinois students with a college-educated parent scored at the advanced level, a percentage comparable to all students in France and the United Kingdom. The percentage of highly accomplished students from college-educated families in Rhode Island is just short of 6 percent, the same percentage for all students in Spain, Italy, and Latvia.
The Previous Rosy Gloss
Many casual observers may be surprised by our findings, as two previous, highly publicized studies have suggested that—even though improvement was possible—the U.S. was doing all right. This was the picture from two reports issued by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research, who compared the average performance in math of 8th-grade students in each of the 50 states with the average scores of 8th-grade students in other countries. These comparisons used methods that are similar to ours to relate 2007 NAEP performance for U.S. students to both TIMSS 2003 and TIMSS 2007. His findings are more favorable to the United States than those shown by our analyses. While our study using the PISA data shows U.S. student performance in math to be below 30 other countries, Phillips found the average U.S. student to be performing better than all but 14 other countries in his 2007 report and all but 8 countries in his 2009 report. (Oddly, the 2007 report takes a much more buoyant perspective than the 2009 report, though the data suggest otherwise.) Phillips also finds that individual states do much better vis-à-vis other countries than we report.
Why do two studies that seem to be employing generally similar methodologies produce such strikingly different results?
The answer to that puzzle is actually quite simple and has little to do with the fact that Phillips compares average student performance while our study focuses on advanced students: many OECD countries, including those that had a high percentage of high-achieving students, participated in PISA 2006 (upon which our analysis is based) but did not participate in either TIMSS 2003 or TIMSS 2007, the two surveys included in the Phillips studies. In fact, 19 countries that outscored the U.S. on the PISA 2006 test did not participate in TIMSS 2003, and 22 higher-scoring countries did not participate in TIMSS 2007. As a report by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics has explained, “Differences in the set of countries that participate in an assessment can affect how well the United States appears to do internationally when results are released.”
Put starkly, if one drops from a survey countries such as Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and New Zealand, and includes instead such countries as Botswana, Ghana, Iran, and Lebanon, the average international performance will drop, and the United States will look better relative to the countries with which it is being compared.
Teaching Math to the Talented
Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann
Winter 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 1