By Eduardo Porter
November 3, 2015
Here’s the good news: American schools may not be as bad as we have been led to believe.
|A mural outside Intermediate School 292 in East New York, Brooklyn.|
One study found that a gap in student performance between the United States
and other countries narrowed when social status was considered.
CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times
Ah, but here’s the bad news: The rest of American society is failing its disadvantaged citizens even more than we realize. The question is, Should educators be responsible for fixing this?
The perennial debate about the state of public education starts with a single, seemingly unassailable fact. American students sorely lag their peers in other rich nations and even measure up poorly compared with students in some less advanced countries.
Americans scored more than halfway down from the top in the last round of the so-called PISA standardized tests in math, administered in 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries. They scored about a third of the way down in reading and almost halfway down in science.
The lackluster performance has reinforced a belief that American public education — the principals and teachers, the methods and procedures — is just not up to scratch. There must be something wrong when the system in the United States falls short where many others succeed.
But is the criticism fair? Are American schools failing because they are not good at their job? Perhaps their job is simply tougher.
In a report released last week, Martin Carnoy from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, Emma García from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and Tatiana Khavenson from the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, suggest that socioeconomic deficits impose a particularly heavy burden on American schools.
“Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Professor Carnoy told me. “We underrate our progress.”
The researchers started by comparing test scores in the United States with those in France, Germany, Britain, Canada, Finland, South Korea, Poland and Ireland. On average, students in all those countries do better than American children.
Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder.
American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish.
Encouragingly, disadvantaged American students have made more progress over recent years than those in even some of the highest-ranked countries. And some American states perform as well as the international darlings. Adjusting for families’ academic resources, 15-year-olds in Massachusetts scored roughly as high in the PISA math test as students in Canada, Finland and Poland.
Mr. Carnoy and his colleagues estimated that the score gap between American students and those in the highest-ranked countries — Finland, Canada and South Korea — shrinks by 25 percent in math and 40 percent in reading once proper adjustments for gender, age, mother’s education and books in the home are taken into account.
A similar pattern shows up within the United States: Adjusting for differences in demography and access to academic resources — including variables like language spoken at home, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch and parental education — reduced performance gaps between states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by 40 to 50 percent.
Awareness that America’s educational deficits are driven to a large degree by socioeconomic disadvantage might move the policy debate, today so firmly anchored in a “schools fail” mode. It offers up a new question: Is it reasonable to ask public schools to fix societal problems that start holding disadvantaged children back before they are conceived?
Jane Waldfogel from Columbia University and colleagues from Australia, Britain and Canada concluded that children from families of low socioeconomic status are already more than a year behind those of well-educated parents on the first day of kindergarten.
And it is becoming even harder for the American schools most children attend to overcome these differences. “The public school population is getting poorer,” Mr. Carnoy noted.
This line of thought may let American schools off the hook too easily. Equalizing opportunity is, in fact, one of the core purposes of education. And schools in countries poorer than the United States seem to do a better job.
“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,” said Andreas Schleicher, the O.E.C.D.’s top educational expert, who runs the organization’s PISA tests. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”
Mr. Schleicher criticized the analysis of the PISA data by Professor Carnoy and his colleagues for using a single indicator: books at home. And he pointed me to a statistic that underscores how the role of socioeconomic status can be overplayed.
As part of the PISA exercise, the O.E.C.D. collects information about parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status — and combines them into one index.
By that standard, fewer than 15 percent of American students come from the bottom rung of society. And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.
“I found this contrast between actual and perceived disadvantage so interesting that I intend to publish it shortly,” he told me.
Whatever the failings of the rest of society, it still seems clear Americans schools can do better.
While poor students start at a disadvantage, Professor Waldfogel and her colleagues found that the gap between the educational performance of rich and poor children widens further as they progress through the public school system.
Mr. Carnoy and Mr. Schleicher agree that parents should expect more.
Mr. Carnoy, however, argues that policy makers could learn more from successful American states, like Massachusetts, than from vastly different countries like Finland or South Korea.
Mr. Schleicher doesn’t quite agree. Comparing the United States with other countries, he notes, allows researchers to identify particularly egregious deficits of American education.
There’s the wide disparity in resources devoted to education, which flows naturally from a system of school finance based on local property taxes. There’s the informal tracking that happens when smart children are grouped separately in gifted and talented classes while the less able are held back a year.
Teachers are paid poorly, compared to those working in other occupations. And the best of them are not deployed to the most challenging schools.
In a country like the United States, with its lopsided distribution of opportunity and reward, social disadvantage will always pose a challenge. What’s frustrating, Mr. Schleicher said, is “the inability of the school system to moderate the disadvantage.”