U.S. Education Is Much Better Than You Think

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Few things inspire nationwide hand-ringing among the American elite like an international survey pointing out how un-elite we are. The United States, which likes to think of itself as number one in every list that matters, typically chimes in around 20 or 30 when our kids match up against foreign students in international math and science studies. But here's a great post about how these surveys get education achievement so wrong.

Education reformers sometimes encourage us to think of schools like a business. This leads to a list of sensible sounding goals. Clarify incentives for students and teachers. Test progress iteratively. Balance costs and benefits to invest in pedagogy that works. Reward success.

But if we're going to apply economic lessons to kids' brains, let's also think about the economic concepts of input and output. That is, think about who we're teaching and what we expect of them. Finland, one of the countries that consistently rocks these tests, has very few immigrants. The United States, on the other hand, is one of the most-immigrant rich developed countries.

Why does that matter? Because around the world, immigrants tend to perform worse on standardized tests.

The author explains how he did well in a bad school in Tehran and poorly in a good school in Sweden because he hadn't mastered the second country's language. This is common, he says: "In almost all European countries, immigrants from third world countries score lower than native born kids."

So to get an apples-to-apples comparison, he takes the PISA scores and matches up Americans with European ancestry with Europeans in Europe. Seen in this light, the United States has one of the best education systems in the world:

The results are astonishing at least to me. Rather than being at the bottom of the class, United States students are 7th best out of 28, and far better than the average of Western European nations where they largely originate from.

For Asian-American students (remember this includes Vietnam, Thailand and other less developed countries outside Northeast Asia), the mean PISA score is 534, same as 533 for the average of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Let's be clear about what we can and cannot learn from this approach. Outside variables -- the diversity of U.S. languages and cultures -- can muddy the results of a standardized test when we're matched up against more uniform classrooms. Some major news outlets treat the PISA scores as a conclusion, rather than a useful, if flawed, indicator of achievement.

But the fact that the United States is diverse shouldn't be an excuse for throwing out two decades of international studies showing us falling behind the rest of the world. Researchers who have studied schools in Japan, Singapore, Finland and other consistently "elite" performers note gaping differences in the structure of the school day, the way teachers are incentivized, and the way math and science is taught overseas. Those lessons shouldn't be discounted as irrelevant given our cultural differences, but they should be considered in the context of the United States' unique education challenges.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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