For years, free market education reformers have claimed that the U.S. public education system is broken—some have even called it a threat to our national security (Reagan’s Nation at Risk report, 1983). They have used this “crisis” to justify everything from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to attacks on teachers’ seniority, tenure and due process rights. It has led to a decade of accountability and testing mania that has eaten up instructional time and replaced activities that foster creativity and critical thinking with rote memorization. It has taken away billions of dollars that could have been used for teacher training, recruitment and remuneration, and transferred it into the pockets of test and textbook publishers, private charter school operators, and online curriculum producers.
The claims that America’s schools are failing are grossly exaggerated, if not utterly false. For example, the number of students attempting and passing SAT and AP exams has been growing every year and in every ethnic and social group (see here and here). Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, for the first time in history, more than 30% of Americans aged 25 or older—56 million people—have bachelor's degrees, while only 5% did 70 years ago—something that would be impossible if K-12 education was not successfully preparing its graduates for college. According to Good Education, more than one-third of these degrees are now in STEM fields. The data also indicates that gender and ethnic disparities are closing, with 30% of women now holding degrees (compared to 31% of men), while the percentage of Hispanic degree holders increased 80% over the past decade, with over 14% now holding degrees.
Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics
Free market reformers love testing because it seems objective and scientific (plus they can massage the statistics to suit their needs). Most people lack the time and expertise to disaggregate the numbers, examine the methodology, and identify biases and experimental errors that can skew the data and influence the validity of their conclusions. Consequently, the media typically report test results without such analyses, proliferating misconceptions and inaccuracies like the notion that U.S. students’ test scores are substantially lower than those in other wealthy nations (as measured by the PISA test).
However, as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) correctly points out in a new report (that you can read here), lower income students in every country perform more poorly on the tests than affluent students. However, because economic inequality is greater in the U.S. than in virtually every other country with which we are compared, our national average appears comparatively low. To make matters worse, there was a sampling error in the most recent PISA test, resulting in an over-representation of students from the most disadvantaged U.S. schools, thus further depressing the average U.S. scores.
When EPI re-estimated PISA scores, adjusting for the disproportionate number of economically disadvantaged students in the U.S., it found that average U.S. scores in reading and math were substantially higher than the official numbers. Using EPI’s corrected numbers, the U.S. moves to sixth in reading (up from the officially reported 14th) and 13th in math (up from the officially reported 25th) compared with other OECD countries.
Although U.S. students still performed worse than those in the top three countries (Canada, Finland and Korea), the difference was markedly narrowed when adjusted for socioeconomic differences. Perhaps more significantly, economically disadvantaged students in the U.S. performed better than their social class peers in most other countries, including in these three top scoring countries.
Thus, while U.S. educational outcomes appear worse than those of its trading partners (due mostly to its greater levels of social inequity), it is actually doing a better job than its trading partners at boosting the test scores of its poorest students. Furthermore, the performance of the poorest U.S. students has been improving over time, while the performance of poor students in other similar countries has been on the decline, suggesting that U.S. schools are doing a better job addressing the needs of their economically disadvantaged students.