Massachusetts vs. the world

In some U.S. states, students are world class, reports The Quick and the Ed, using an analysis by Gary Philipps of the American Institutes of Research.

Massachusetts in particular stands out, and four other states–Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Kansas–received grades of “B,” up there with the likes of Japan. On the flip side, there were a bunch of C’s and one D in, of course, Washington, DC, where fourth graders learn math at the same level as Ukraine.

This is useful information. International comparisons are often shot down on grounds of fundamental non-comparability. After all, Singapore and Hong Kong are tiny little bits of Asia that just happened to have been sequestered into autonomous political entities by the British because they were advantageously located for international commerce. Countries like Japan and Finland (which tops the PISA test but doesn’t participate in TIMSS) have unusually homogeneous populations and strong cultural ties among citizens as well as other beneficial non-education factors–strong social safety nets, low crime, school-oriented cultures, etc. They’re just not like us, the thinking goes, so it’s unreasonable to compare us to them.

. . . Massachusetts in particular, the highest performing state, is full of people from all manner of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds.

If some states can do it, why not more?

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Comments

  1. … = But New Jersey isn’t an autocratic city-state on the tip of the Malay peninsula or a Nordic socialist paradise or anything like that. Nor is Massachusetts (well, maybe the socialist part) or Minnesota or New Hampshire or Kansas. They’re all medium-sized states in America, subject to American laws, filled with lots of Americans in all the diversity that makes this nation great.

    Massachusetts has long had that reputation. Could that have something to do with its performance. At least as far as cultural expectations.

  2. One of the other features of Massachusetts is that they developed their own “No Child Left Behind” law long before the feds got on board, the Education Reform Act of 1993. So they’ve already been through all the fights about whether they should water-down standardized tests, what to do with consistently under-performing schools, etc. long before other states have been dragged into it. So with luck, maybe more states will become more like Massachusetts a few years down the road.

  3. Andromeda says:

    I live in Massachusetts…

    So, yeah, we have some things going for us. Accountability laws and tests in place pre-NCLB, and some high-profile politicians and nonprofits and philanthropists heavily invested in education. And, oh yeah, centuries of tradition in educational achievement, spawning world-renowned universities and K-12 schools (both public –Boston Latin, anyone? — and private).

    (Note that some of this can be replicated elsewhere. Some can’t.)

    But Massachusetts isn’t monolithic. We have towns like Weston — median salary in the six figures — and other places full of high incomes and/or the folks who move here for education and biotech — places that can succeed on demographics alone. And that’s great for those places, but not readily generalizable (and anyway, places with similar demographics in other states also have high test scores). But we also have places where the demographics don’t give you test scores for free, like Boston, where only 40% of students graduate from high school in four years (per an article I was reading in the Globe this morning). Race and poverty correlate hugely with such outcomes, in the usual and unfortunate way. And hey, other places with similar populations *also* have problems like that!

    So I don’t know where the value-add is here, really. MA is full of affluent, highly-educated people who drag its average up, but looking up close, where things are disaggregated, I see a lot of the same problems that I hear about elsewhere.

  4. I live in NJ and agree with Andromeda. Did the study look at existing demographics? NJ is filled with affulent, high income, highly educated souls. We’re sandwiched inbetween NYC, Philly and, to a certain extent, D.C. I would hope that Jersey would be a high performing state given the starting point of many of the kids. Take a look at our inner city schools in places like Newark, Jersey City, and Tenton and there’s a completely different story. These distric spend an ungodly amount of money, in excess of twice the expenditures in the affuent areas, and still perform pathetically.

    Perhaps the schools in the high performing districts shouldn’t be held up as models given the population they start with.

  5. I grew up in MA and will have to disagree that the schools there are “world class”. While the average scores are respectable, only a small percentage of MA students score in the “advanced” range compared with nearly half in the top Asian countries. Mediocrity isn’t going to cut it in the globalized economy. We need to be getting our brightest students to reach their full potential in a way that’s not happening today.

  6. Critics of public schools use slanted stats and big publicity to hammer on schools and educators. A few years ago, Phi Delta Kappa (5/05), perhaps the most respected education journal, said that by using singular studies or tests, etc., one can make just about any claim against public schools. However, when a broad sampling of grade levels, subject levels, and measurements are used, then American students rank above average internationally.

    No, we are not number one in education, but neither are we number one if factors that predict a top education product – factors such as health care for children, pre and post-natal health care, infant mortality rates, and the number of children NOT living in poverty.

    The greatest predictors of education performance are poverty level rates. The link between poverty and poor education performance is as statistically clear as the link between smoking and cancer. America’s poverty level rates dwarf those of the nation’s to whom America is compared. If only America were where white and middle class then it too would be right there at the top of international rankings.

    Rates of crime, obesity, disease, addiction, abuse, and dysfunction are highest for those in poverty – and people in poverty push all societal institutions to their limits. I have no suggestions for reducing poverty, but as a teacher I am angered by anti-public school groups who expect schools to be the lone societal institution that bucks the effects of poverty and operates as if poverty simply did not exist.

    Trying to fix schools in poverty-stricken areas, without fixing the poverty, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.

    Show me a broken neighborhood and I’ll show you a broken school – and the broken school did not come first.

    Most public school critics have no idea what the public school classroom is like at the operational level and their recommendations and suggestions reveal their level of ignorance. Anti-public school groups are mostly staffed and headed by wealthy people from politics, corporations, and big business. Hasn’t the political/economic debacle we are in shown us how astute and ethical these folks are? They need to focus on their own house and leave areas like education alone.

    Better yet, maybe educators need to form a task force and get the media to promote a drive to improve corporate and business America.

  7. Dan,
    good points at first, but then a cop out and canard

    cop out: broken neighborhood does make improving schools harder, but does not condemn the school to be broken. That is part of the Green Dot conclusion in LA and it’s been replicated in many other locales. It is worth improving the school, even before waiting for the neighborhood to improve.

    canard: criticism does not equal anti-public school. You’ll find people trying to improve public education (although yes, there are others with their own agenda.) Moreover, the people involved are more than your brush of “staffed and headed by wealthy people”. As importantly, the current political/economic debacle doesn’t invalidate input. Education is part of the house we all live in.

  8. Chris,

    Where’s the cop out and from what am I copping out? – I never advocated not improving the school before improving the neighborhood but if the neighborhood at some point is not also improved then the school IS condemned to be broken. Read the book “Class and Schools – Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap” (Rothstein, 2004).

    And my deliberate misleading statement, or canard? I NEVER said criticism equals anti-public school. You did. I simply used the term “anti-public school groups” and there are definitely such groups and they make no secret of their desire to end public schools. Also, I never said that our current political/economic condition invalidates input about schools. You did. I said perhaps folks in troubled areas should focus on their troubles.

    And Green Dot? All peer reviewed charter school studies that I know of have concluded no difference between charter school performance and public school performance. If anything, the public schools do a bit better. Of course if one only hears the one-sided stuff put out by charter school advocates then what else can I say?

    Have you read real charter school research? (by “real” I mean conducted by nonpartisans using proper methodology with conclusions subjected to peer review)

    Have you heard of the Sandia Report?

    Do you now how international comparisons of students are really done?

    Do you know what was behind “A Nation at Risk” – the govt report that launched the ongoing attack against schools?

    What really is NAEP – nicknamed “The Report Card” for our nation’s schools?

    I have taught for 30+ years and once believed all the negative hype directed at public schools. But my own reality at the operational level did not confirm what I was hearing in the media so I did some searching of my own. I discovered that public schools are not erfect but they are not in the system wide crisis that many would lead us to believe.

    Go to: http://publicschooldefender1.blogspot.com/
    Go to: http://publicschooldefender2.blogspot.com/

  9. Chris,

    I guess when you call someone and excuse maker and a liar you probably are going to get a response (even if you start out with a compliment).

    Where’s the cop out and from what am I copping out? – I never advocated not improving the school before improving the neighborhood. However, if the neighborhood at some point is not also improved, then the school IS condemned to be broken. Please read the book “Class and Schools – Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap” (Rothstein, 2004).

    And my deliberate misleading statement, or canard? I NEVER said criticism equals anti-public school. You did. I simply used the term “anti-public school groups” and there are definitely such groups and they make no secret of their desire to end public schools. Also, I never said that our current political/economic condition invalidates input about schools. You did. I said perhaps folks in troubled areas should focus on their troubles.

    And Green Dot? All peer reviewed charter school studies that I know of have concluded no difference between charter school performance and public school performance. If anything, the public schools do a bit better. Of course if one only hears the one-sided stuff put out by charter school advocates then what else can I say?

    Have you read real charter school research? (by “real” I mean conducted by non-partisans using proper methodology with conclusions subjected to peer review)

    Have you heard of the Sandia Report?

    Do you now how international comparisons of students are really done?

    Do you know what was behind “A Nation at Risk” – the govt report that launched the ongoing attack against schools?

    What really is NAEP – nicknamed “The Report Card” for our nation’s schools?

    I have taught for 30+ years and once believed all the negative hype directed at public schools. But my own reality at the operational level did not confirm what I was hearing in the media so I did some searching of my own. I concluded that public schools are not perfect but they also are not in the system wide crisis that many would lead us to believe.

    Click on my name and visit my website (at least before you accuse me again of copping out and creating canards).

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    Dan–I’m with Chris. US is above average on most things. C+, however, is not an outstanding grade. And we, as Americans, tend to think that we are top of the heap. I am not up to speed on all of the research, but I believe that when there has been research into the inter-relationship of education and poverty in an international arena (research questions along the lines of, does improved education link to improved economy), the biggest bang for the buck tends to be at the lowest levels. That is, when impoverished third-world-type countries put resources into literacy and education efforts, the resulting workforce has a impact on the economy. I think that this is an important factor to consider in America’s “broken” neighborhoods. Also important to consider whether the existing school systems (highly responsive to “squeeky wheels,” highly dependent on local wealth, highly economically segregated) support the brokenness of neighborhoods (and whether “broken” is an apt descriptor of the neighborhoods where poor people live).

    It is also important to consider the homogeneity factor–frequently cited as causal (or at least correlated) in such high performing economies as Japan and Finland. Overlooked is the heterogeneity of other high performing ecomonies as Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, all or individual provinces of Canada.

    It is certainly true that highly socialized countries have a much broader social safety net–which they pay for through taxes–and appear to be satisfied with. We balk at any loss of opportunity (or the illusion of opportunity) to become fabulously wealthy, as well as scorning any recipients of redistributed wealth as being lazy. However, the fact of the matter is that not only are such countries doing better educationally on average, but their top to bottom gaps are smaller, less impacted by family income levels and the kids at the top tend to be doing better than our top performers.

    I think it is important not to conflate any successes of Green Dot (or any other charter) with the performance of “charters” as a group, just as it would be important not to lump the performance of all publics across the board into a single group, given the wide variance. The research does tend to indicate that comparisons between “public” and “charter” don’t yield much that is helpful. It is certainly possible that Green Dot has identified some key improvements that we should be open to examining–just as we should be open to examining any individual examples of success in any realm.

    While looking at Massachussetts as an entity in a global comparison still masks variances within the state, it is also helpful to see how Massachussetts stacks up as a political entity, as the state is still the major disseminator of education policy in the US. It is more helpful information than simply knowing how the US stacks up against other countries.

  11. Ragnarok says:

    “US is above average on most things.”

    Cite, por favor?

  12. Ragnarok says:

    Dan Nagle asked:

    “Do you now how international comparisons of students are really done?”

    How?