Educating everybody

Some countries do a good job of educating everybody — rich and poor — but the U.S. is not one of them, writes Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive scientist, on The Answer Sheet.

Some countries have successfully minimized the disparity in educational outcomes between rich and poor. According to the PISA, the countries doing the best job include Iceland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Canada, and Finland.

America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, Willingham writes. But the poor don’t have an equal opportunity to get a good education.

I don’t know how other countries have addressed this problem. It may be curricular. It may lie in how they fund schools. It may be that social services are better distributed so that, despite the large wealth disparity, kids don’t come to school hungry, or with a toothache because they’ve never seen a dentist.

I don’t know how they are doing it, but I think we would be wise to learn how other countries teach poor kids because they do it better than we do. And we can’t wait until poverty is eliminated.

Most Latino children start kindergarten with the same social and emotional skills as middle-class white children, concludes a new study. However, they fall behind “if they attend low-quality schools and live in low-income neighborhoods,” reports Mary Ann Zehr in Education Week.

(Researchers)  looked at several social areas: self-control, interpersonal skills, approaches to learning, and internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors.

Children from Mexican families start school better prepared than Puerto Rican children. Black children start with weaker social skills.

Update: The Education Department is opening up competition for Promise Neighborhoods grants. Modeled after Harlem Children’s Zone, the idea is to provide a web of social services to needy children to help them do better in school and life.

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  1. Except for Canada, the countries listed are fairly homogenous. It would not at all surprise me to learn that culture plays a large part in this.

  2. I would have thought the answer was obvious – the American people don’t really care about its poor people – we in the rest of the world have seen that for years – so am surprised by your surprise.

    Your system is entirely devoted to being and becoming financially rich at the expense of all else – when money is the only aim of any nation, what else can you expect?

  3. Most of the Asian countries on the list have a huge private cram school culture as well. Both Korea and Japan do. Not sure about Hong Kong.

  4. Ponderosa says:


    I am very leftist in my politics, but I would argue that many leftie ideas about education have crippled the poor. Progressive ed (projects, student-centered learning, emphasis on skills as opposed to knowledge) widens the achievement gap between the classes, though many lefties falsely believe that it does the opposite. Read E.D. Hirsch’s The Making of Americans for the full argument. Hirsch is a liberal Democrat but favors a traditionalist approach to education like that in France with its coherent, sequential national curriculum. In France, public ed NARROWS the achievement gap; here, public ed widens it.

  5. Karenne Sylvester said….

    “I would have thought the answer was obvious – the American people don’t really care about its poor people – we in the rest of the world have seen that for years – so am surprised by your surprise.”

    What sanctimonious nonsense. We uncaringing darwinists in the US of A spend more money per pupil on K-12 education then those countries mentioned above. Many of our most disadvantaged school districts receive twice the amount of funding of well-off districts, at least in New Jersey were I live. Our failure is in the lack of standards do to embracing Rousseau-like philosphies of education and white guilt. What has failed in America isn’t our competitive environment, but, rather the well intentioned but boneheaded education policies.

    Some folks love embracing the “America hates the poor and is racist” so that they can feel superior about themselves and their so generous, enlightened, sophisticated worldview. Childish really.

  6. What are the statistics regarding poor white children vs. rich white children? I suspect this is a cultural issue.

  7. The fact that most of those countries are small and homogeneous is fairly important. In the U.S. we don’t have one homogeneous culture, nor one education system. Instead we’re incredibly diverse, spread across a gigantic land mass and have broken our education system up into fifty individual systems. The fact is that there is no easy solution because of this, as an easy fix requires many fewer variables if the desired outcome is one single system that works. That said, most of these comments have some truth to them.

  8. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I believe that family structure and stability plays a role in this. Where there are families, including fathers who take an interest in their children’s schooling, the children do well, don’t they?

    I recall debates in the 60s about welfare and whether greater governmental support would undermine the father’s role, making dad’s pay check less necessary. I think Moynihan, stout liberal that he was, weighed in on this. People worried about fatherlessness among American blacks (supposedly due to the greater ability of black women to find work) and that it was spreading among whites as well. We’ve got many problems of long standing due, I believe, more to the wrong solutions than to a lack of caring. There have been several studies of American generosity showing conservatives give more that liberals and the poor give a greater percentage of their money than do the wealthy.

  9. Nick: Japan is small? I thought it had about 100,000,000 residents. France is homogeneous? And can you explain to me precisely how a Hispanic kid requires a different educational program than a white kid? Does a smart Hispanic kid have more in common with a smart white kid or a dumb Hispanic kid?

    Read E.D. Hirsch, please. He’s the most (the only?) cogent education writer in America. If you’re going to ponder education, educate yourself about education.

  10. Ben F-
    Small doesn’t necessarily imply population size (although I did say “most” were small which was accurate even in terms of population size for the list given) and referring to the U.S. as heterogeneous doesn’t necessarily imply ethnicity or race so much as culture. The U.S. is a mixed bag of cultures from coast to coast and while varying ethnic groups contribute to those cultures they certainly do not define them.

    You also ignored completely the larger point- fifty separate education systems in one country. I feel that’s a larger contributing factor to the discrepancy.

    I’ve heard a lot about E.D. Hirsch lately. Perhaps I will pick up a copy of the book that is supposed to be the answer to all of the problems with education in this country.

  11. tim-10-ber says:

    We have ill-spent most of our education dollars. Throw in the entire welfare system, the break-up of the family, multiculturalism and the rest of what many others have said…the reasons our government education system is so poor is obvious

  12. (Craig): “What are the statistics regarding poor white children vs. rich white children? I suspect this is a cultural issue.”

    “Culture” means something, but the word is too vague to qualify as a one-word explanation. NCES provides State-level NAEP Reading and Math scores (mean, percentile, and proficiency) by parents’ race and level of education. Some years ago I looked at the relation between two independent variables, age (start) of compulsory education and district size (using indirect measures, since NCES will not supply scores by district), on the one hand, and various NAEP measures of performance. The State with the highest performance (mean, 8th grade Math, children of college-educated white parents, children of high school-educated white parents) was Washington, DC (which NCES counts as a State). The State with the lowest level of performance (children of high school-educated white parents, children of high school-educated black parents) was Hawaii. This last result is surprising since a large proportion of Hawaii’s black parents are military and these people have passed basic literacy tests to join, and are not poor.

    Except for children of college-educated white parents, district size is negatively correlated with NAEP scores. Smaller is better. States wilh the narrowist gaps between black and white mean scores and the narrowest gaps between college-educated and high-school educated white or black scores tend strongly to be those states with most enrollment in small school districts. Smaller is better. For whites and Hispanics (iirc), age (start) of compulsory attendance is positively correlated with performance (later is better). For blacks, age (start) is slightly negatively correlated with NAEP scores. For Asians, the correlation is very weakly negative.

    Herman Brutsaert related performance of students in government and parochial schools in Belgium to parent SES. He found that parent SES was more strongly correlsted with test scores in State schools.

    It’s the culture of school administers that matters. Bureaucrats know better than to mess with a banker or lawyer’s kid. Government operation of school enhances inequality of result.
    Numerous lines of evidence support the following generalizations:
    1. As institutions displace parents in education decision-making, overall system performance falls.
    2. Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically-adept parents (Duh).