Why Gloomy Pundits and Politicians Are Wrong About America's Education System

A eye-opening new paper comparing U.S. students to their international peers by social class finds that the richest Americans are world-class readers, and in math, our disadvantaged kids have improved more than almost any other country

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Here's what everybody knows about education in the United States. It's broken. It's failing our poorest students and codding the richest. Americans are falling desperately behind the rest of the developed world.

But here's what a new study from the Economic Policy Institute tells us about America's education system: Every one of those common assumptions is simplistic, misguided, or downright wrong.

When you break down student performance by social class, a more complicated, yet more hopeful, picture emerges, highlighted by two pieces of good news. First, our most disadvantaged students have improved their math scores faster than most comparable countries. Second, our most advantaged students are world-class readers.

Why break down international test scores by social class? In just about every country, poor students do worse than rich students. America's yawning income inequality means our international test sample has a higher share of low-income students, and their scores depress our national average. An apples-to-apples comparison of Americans students to their international peers requires us to control for social class and compare the performances of kids from similarly advantaged and disadvantaged homes.

That's precisely what Martin Carnoy, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and Richard Rothstein have done in their new paper, "What Do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance?" Carnoy and Rothstein dive into international standardized tests and compare U.S. performance, by social class, to three post-industrial countries (Germany, the UK, and France) and three top-scoring countries (Canada, Finland, and Korea).

Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 9.49.58 AM.png"The US happens to have a very high fraction of low-social-class kids taking the PISA test," said Carnoy. "The composition of our test sample is very different from the higher-scoring countries and post-industrial countries. If you want to more clearly see how much students are getting from the school, you have to find some way to control for their families."

READING: A HAPPY STORY

One of the most heartening findings from the paper is that Americans are awesome readers. Literally, world-class. Our most advantaged students not only perform better than our European competitors, but also they perform about as well as any top-scoring country in the world, as the charts to the right show. [Hard lines compare most advantaged students; dotted lines are most disadvantaged.]

As you can see at the bottom of each chart, the story is equally inspiring for our poorest students, who are closing the gap in reading in Canada, Finland, and Korea.

"I was surprised that reading scores among our advantaged kids are so strong compared to all other countries," Carnoy said, pointing me to the graph on our right. "We're slightly lower than Finland, but it's hardly a difference. Our reading scores have gone up faster at the bottom, and they are as high or higher for advantaged kids as all other countries."

Presented by

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

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