U.S. is average — except in inequality

The U.S. education system is ahead of the pack in one category — inequality — notes Education Trust in its analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

Compared to other developed countries, the United States has the fifth largest gap between low-income students and their more affluent classmates. In reading, for example, students attending our high-poverty high schools performed 24 percent below those from higher income schools.

. . . Many of the countries at the top of the performance rankings – Canada, Finland, and Korea, for example – rank noticeably at the bottom of the list measuring the size of socioeconomic-status (SES) gaps.

Low-SES students in the U.S. don’t do as well as similar students in other countries, such as New Zealand.

U.S. students who are white and Asian students perform about as well in reading, math, and science as the average student in high-performing countries like Canada and Japan, Education Trust reports. But our Latino students are at the same level as Turkey and Dubai, while black students are on a par with students in Serbia and Bulgaria.

The recent ACT report, which looked at whether students can meet the new Common Core Standards, also found massive achievement gaps. In reading, 47 percent of white eleventh-graders reach the standard, compared with 19 percent of Hispanic and 11 percent of blacks. In algebra, 41 percent of white high school juniors, 21 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks are meet the standard.

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Comments

  1. If it is worth separating out racial/ethnic gaps in the US, then it is equally necessary to make international comparisons on the same basis. How do Latino and black students in “high-performing countries like Canada and Japan” compare with Latino and black students in the US?

    Oh, there are hardly any Latino or black students in Japan? Might that make a difference?

  2. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Why do we instantly assume that inequality is a bad thing? I mean, really… who cares?

    Yes, the fact that so many of our high school students are illiterate is a problem. But the problem is that they are illiterate, not that their contemporaries across town can read so much better than they.

    Do I really care if the rich kids are doing advanced calculus, so long as the poor kids actually know how to solve for x?

  3. How about equality of effort? The entitlement mentality is toxic, whether it is applied to education, housing, food, health care or anything else. What is free and demands no effort is not valued.

  4. All the attention paid to the so-called “achievement” gap leaves many people with the impression that white kids in the U.S. are doing great. They’re not. While the percent of white students reaching “proficiency” may be on par with countries like Japan and Canada, we are much further down the pack when it comes to the percent reaching the “advanced” level. In this age of the globalized economy we can’t settle for mediocrity.

    We ought to be focusing on raising achievement levels for *ALL* children. Not just getting children to grade-level proficiency (though that’s certainly a worthwhile goal) but also getting a similar fraction of our kids to the “advanced” level as the top-performing Asian and European ones.

  5. The common core standards are one useful means of setting a baseline for achievement goals. Certainly there will always be a range of student outcomes, but when they’re so clearly tied to socioeconomics and race, it’s hard to ignore the inequity. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Defenders of Hawaii’s State-monopoly school district sometimes assert that this structure promotes equality of funding and results. Years ago, I looked into this. Across the US, the mean test score gap between white and black students (NAEP 8th grade Math) increases as the percent of total State enrollment assigned to large districts increases. The test score gap between the 90th percentile score and the 10th percentile increases. Aggregation of resources and authority exacerbates inequality. Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents.
    In a study which compared performance (as measured by standardized tests) of parochial schools and government schools in Belgium (which subsidizes a parent’s choice of school), Herman Brutsaert mean scores of parochial school mean were higher and individual student scores were less strongly correlated with parent income than the scores of students in government schools. Government control of school exacerbates inequality.

  7. North of 49th says:

    How do Latino and black students in “high-performing countries like Canada and Japan” compare with Latino and black students in the US?

    Latino and black students in Canada do better than Latino and black students in the USA, but they are not comparable groups to start with. The majority of black students are from the Caribbean or Africa and do not share the culture, history or values of American blacks. “Latino” students are not mainly from Mexico, Cuba or Puerto Rico (as in the U.S.) but from South and Central America and Spanish-speaking territories like the Canary Islands. Many of the “Latino” students would be “white” by any racial measure. Argentines, Uruguayans, Chileans have a lot of European genetic background. People self-identify more by cultural than racial groups: Somali, Italian, Ukrainian, Ghanaian, etc.

    Aboriginal students are mired in poverty and low achievement, as in the U.S. In the larger districts white, Asian and South Asian students outperform blacks and some white groups, such as Portuguese and Roma.

    An interesting factoid is that children of immigrants (who are now largely non-white) are now more likely to attend and complete university than their native-born (mostly white) peers. A lower percentage of the population attend university in Canada than in the U.S., but community college enrollment is rising sharply.

  8. In this age of the globalized economy we can’t settle for mediocrity.

    Which is exactly opposite to philosophies like “No Child Left Behind”, which accept universal mediocrity so long as everyone is equal.

    If we aren’t going to settle for mediocrity, all schools need to use ability gouping, all districts with enough students should have magnet schools, and Gifted and Talented must take priority over sports.

    This has as much chance of happening in the next 10 years as the tissue-paper dog has of chasing the asbestos cat through hell.

  9. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Well… the asbestos cat would be fine. :)

  10. Josh Carlson says:

    Inequality isn’t such a bad thing? Entitlement mentality? It is true enough that someone has to sweep the floors and clean the restrooms, or deliver my pizza on a friday night that I can’t afford. But does it also have to be true that there needs to be such a Vast (and ever increasing) gulf between the very rich and the shrinking middle class? Does there have to be quite so much suffering? I’d like to think that was more the direction the post’s author was leaning towards. The greater the inequality, the more the needless crime, misery, supreme court rulings that equate money as free speech, etc, the cycle continues. I think we’d all like life to be nice for as many people as reasonably possible. Only a misanthropist would say who cares. Not that I don’t still need someone to hold down the crumby food delivery job (to bring me my entitlement pizza), I just want to know no one’s spitting in my food, and that we’re all pulling for each other’s fair chances in life.

  11. E.D. Hirsch says that the achievement gap in France shrink as kids go through public school, while in the US it widens. The key difference between France and us: they have a solid, coherent, sequential knowledge-based curriculum and we have an incoherent mess of “skills building” activities. Our ed schools’ progressive-ed orthodoxy is exacerbating America’s achievement gap.

  12. Latino and black students in Canada do better than Latino and black students in the USA, but they are not comparable groups to start with.

    Two questions–first, you have a link that shows this? (that’s a question, not a challenge)

    Second, do Latino and black students do as well as white students in Canada?

  13. @Josh Carlson- inequality per se isn’t the problem. The problem comes because a non-insignificant percent of the population lacks the financial resources to meet their basic needs. Income doesn’t correlate with personal happiness once basic needs have been met.

    The fact that some people can afford to drive a top-of-the-line Mercedes while I can only afford an economy Toyota doesn’t bother me because my basic need for reliable personal transportation has been met. But back several years ago when I didn’t have access to a car at all during the week and was stuck having to walk and/or take the bus any time I needed to go somewhere, now that did make me feel disgruntled.

    People having to choose between buying groceries and buying medicine, between paying the electric bill and paying the daycare bill, writing checks they pray to God there will be money in the account to cover before the funds transfer clears, and so on- the prevalence of economic insecurity for so many working Americans is what’s the problem. Not the oft-quoted statistic about Fortune 500 CEO’s making hundreds of times what the average worker does.

  14. Our ed schools’ progressive-ed orthodoxy is exacerbating America’s achievement gap.

    If one was cynical enough, one could see this as one of the first examples of the Cloward-Piven strategy in use against the American republic:  create a problem, and then agitate for more money and power to “solve” it.

    I doubt that shareholders (the nominal owners of companies) would have accepted the increase of CEO pay from 30 times that of the average worker to 300 times, but they don’t get to vote on such things.  Real corporate governance by shareholders has usually required a proxy battle, which is very difficult and expensive.  There is a small insider CEO class which builds enormous wealth through self-dealing (appointing the compensation committees which write their contracts, and whose remuneration they control), and everyone else is screwed.

  15. North of 49th says:

    Two questions–first, you have a link that shows this? (that’s a question, not a challenge)

    Second, do Latino and black students do as well as white students in Canada?

    No, I can’t point to one particular link. But it’s no secret that the demographics of Canada vs. the USA are quite different. So are the school systems and data points. There is no national data on Canadian students, because there is no national K-12 system — every province/territory is autonomous and no federal legislation or funding is applicable to schools. There is no national testing, few students take the SAT or ACT, many districts use no norm-referenced tests of any kind So comparisons are tenuous at best.

    With respect to racial groups, Canada has a very small indigenous black population relative to the U.S., and the black culture and black English of the U.S. is absent. Most black students in the school systems (primarily in the large metropolitan areas — Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver) are of recent immigrant status, from either the Caribbean (Jamaica, Trinidad) or Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana, etc.) They share superficial skin color with American blacks, but are linguistically, culturally and even genetically (by now) quite different.

    According to the 2006 census, the largest visible minority group in Canada as a whole is South Asian, followed by Chinese, then Black, mixed race, Southeast Asian, middle eastern. You can see from the link below that the number, density and exact makeup of minority populations varies tremendously by province:

    http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/as-sa/97-562/index-eng.cfm?CFID=3529481&CFTOKEN=56897711

    Many Spanish-speakers self-identify as “white” but some identify themselves as “Latin American” which refers to any of the Spanish-speaking countries in the Western hemisphere. The majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants come from South America and a few places in Central America, notably the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras.

    Toronto District School Board, the largest in Canada with around 600 schools and 225 000 students tracks student by cultural/ethnic as well as racial groups. A recent study (not online) found big differences in achievement between Caribbean blacks and recent African immigrant students. The Caribbean blacks are much more successful. They tend to be from countries which had a very meritocratic British school system and parents have similar expectations of their children to work hard, respect teachers and do well. Parents are often aghast at the lack of physical discipline in the schools. Black students of African origin are often grappling with language issues (languages like Somali and Twi are linguistically very different from English and it takes longer for those speakers to attain proficiency in academic English). TDSB has a very low percentage of Spanish-speaking students, but finds that those from South America outperform those from Central America, who tend to come from families with little previous education.

    However, an interesting fact is that black students and Spanish-speaking students both outperformed some groups of white students. The lowest performing cohort were students of Portuguese origin. It’s not clear why, because these students are not especially economically disadvantaged.

    One difference I have observed with interest (having taught in the U.S. before working here) is that the Ontario school system seems to be more supportive of “late bloomers.” Students who are struggling in the primary and junior grades may in fact “catch up” in middle and secondary school, something that statistics from the U.S. report as uncommon. A student I taught in sixth grade in 2003 or so was flagged as an IEP candidate, with reading and writing skills at a second grade level. She was black, of African origin and very ambitious. She did not receive any special services (parents refused), but last year came back to the school for a visit. She was in her second year at the University of Toronto on a full scholarship. U of T is very selective in admission — students get turned down there and go to Harvard or Stanford instead;-) — so she clearly made up the gap somewhere along the way. I run into many students who were remedial cases in the early grades who are now college or university students or graduates. I’m not sure what explains it — there are few remedial programs, no tracking or ability grouping until Grade 11, and few ESL programs for non-English speakers.

    So there are so many differences between the U.S. and Canadian systems, demographics and social variables (medical care, housing, funding) that it is difficult to tease out what factors account for the differences. It is true that Canadian kids outperform American kids by a pretty large margin, and norm-referenced tests like the WISC-IV and WRAT have had to be re-normed for Canadian use because of the significant differences in the populations. WISC results using U.S. norms yielded way too many “gifted” students.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Josh C. Saith:

    Inequality isn’t such a bad thing? Entitlement mentality? It is true enough that someone has to sweep the floors and clean the restrooms, or deliver my pizza on a friday night that I can’t afford. But does it also have to be true that there needs to be such a Vast (and ever increasing) gulf between the very rich and the shrinking middle class? Does there have to be quite so much suffering? I’d like to think that was more the direction the post’s author was leaning towards.

    I’m not actually 100% certain what you’re trying to say here, and I think I disagree with some of your statements in an obvious sort of way, which makes me think maybe I’m misinterpreting.

    * “Entitlement mentality” isn’t a sentence, first off, so I don’t know what point you’re trying to imply.

    * I don’t think it’s true that someone has to sweep the floors, clean the restrooms, or deliver pizzas, first because such jobs can be done by machines given the proper resources and second because such jobs don’t “have” to get done at all. People choose to do them, and other people choose to pay them. But like I said, this seems pretty obviously false, so I am not sure I’m reading your sentence right.

    * Your next two sentences ask about the necessity of the income gap and some vaguely asserted “suffering”. But I don’t see what the necessity of the gap has to do with whether it’s inherently a bad thing. There are lots of things that aren’t necessary, that come into being completely contingently, but yet which we don’t condemn on that basis. In other words, let’s say I follow where it seems you want to go and say “No, of course not, it doesn’t have to be true that there needs to be such a Vast (and ever increasing) gulf between the very rich and the shrinking middle class.” What then am I to think? It seems like this is a very indirect way of saying that you do think that the income gap is inherently a bad thing — which while informative (now we know what you think) isn’t much of an argument and it seems a very, very oblique way of making that particular point, suggesting that it’s not the point you’re trying to make.

    * “Does there have to be quite so much suffering?” — I confess I’m lost. What suffering are we talking about? And when are we asking this question? I’d think that the answer to this is always no: we could at any moment decide as a species to all overdose on valium. Voila: end of suffering. But that’s clearly not addressing what you’re talking about. It’s also historically clear that human progress has been a story of reducing suffering, so it seems like maybe (historically speaking) the answer to that question at any given time is “No, of course not, just wait.” But that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the income gap, either. The only reading that seems really relevant is a reading that assumes that the income gap itself causes suffering — but that seems on the one hand unlikely, or if on the other hand the gap does cause suffering all by itself (i.e., I suffer merely because someone else has more than me) then it’s not the kind of suffering we really care about, is it? Does the psychic pain of your envy constitute a reason for action on my part? (Other than locking up my valuables?)

    So I don’t really understand what the “direction” you think the original post was leaning towards actually is.

    Now, Crimson Wife makes an interesting point: she doesn’t mind driving a crappy car, but she doesn’t want to have to walk. What she’s arguing for is that it’s OK to have differences in degree among people, but not differences in kind. Presumably the peasants of medieval Europe would be totally stoked to be able to walk on paved sidewalks and to take buses rather than trudge through mud and bandit-ridden forest. Similarly, we might imagine that some teleportation device is created, and now those who are stuck driving cars — actually traversing the distance — start to “feel disgruntled,” as CW put it. It doesn’t matter how nice their car is, or how well the roads work; the fact that there are people playing an entirely different game might seem “unfair”. And if those people are our fellow citizens, we might think they (or we) have a duty to make sure that we’re all playing the same game.

    I don’t think I agree with CW, because I think that it’s not actually a question of degree and kind, merely a question of greater and lesser differences in degree, and it seems to me that CW is willing to accept small degrees of difference, but balks at larger degrees, and I cannot find myself a principled reason for taking such a stand.

    Bringing this all back to educational inequality — the degrees in question are pretty stark. Some kids can’t read, others are writing (actual) college-level papers on Romantic Poetry and physics. Some kids are learning how to perform Shakespeare, others aren’t even learning to write. That’s a pretty large divide, and at some point it might start to seem like there’s a difference in kind going on: some people are playing the education game while others are playing some other sort of (inferior?) game entirely. If there’s a principled way for arguing such a point, I’d really like to hear it, because it would be a really convenient way to address a whole lot of moral questions about society and politics.

  17. Josh Carlson says:

    In my first comment, I was quoting two lines from nearby previous comments– if we’re reading the thread in order. (And i thought i was fairly concise, though i should’ve used quotation marks, and attributed the two little quotes more clearly). Simply, I thought it was just a little weird, or crass even, that, in a comment to a Post about inequality in Ed. system someone stated ‘who cares.’ I also was put off by someone, after that, lamenting the ‘entitlement mentality’ that i guess they think has some place in this conversation. I’m a social studies teacher in MN. A Huge bleeding H liberal. I believe in throwing money at these kinds of problems (tax revenue). I know, I know, I might as well be at my family’s conservative xmas and tell everyone i’m a gay serial killer. The ensuing conversation isn’t going to be too productive. Too sum it up, we just extended bush tax cuts for those who don’t need them, we as country can’t agree on the basics. Want stimulus, or to create jobs, why not hire more teachers, reduce class size? Improve community infrastructure… About someone questioning what ‘suffering’ i was referring to? I don’t know what to say to that. I will say that i might disagree w whoever above that said that ‘human progress is’ moving in direction of less suffering. Check the pop. numbers increasing over past two centuries, and check into the percent of people that have to drink dirty their bath water, and who are denied AIDs meds etc for $ reasons…. the increasing gap between the have’s a hell of a lot
    and the others, does allow for more suffering, more manipulation of public policies, and effects who gets more and better education.

  18. “I believe in throwing money at these kinds of problems (tax revenue).”

    There is only one response to this: Tried and failed.

  19. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mmm, yes. Lots more people are “denied” AIDS medications today than in 1810.

    I’ll consent to that.

  20. Bad personal choices, such as lack of effort at school or work, dropping out of school, not getting a job (or jobs, any kind of), having kids before marriage, not staying on budget, drugs, alcohol, crime – cause bad outcomes. Taxpayers are getting tired of supporting those who are the author of their own misfortunes.

  21. Are you seriously suggesting that the percentage of the world’s population that has access to safe drinking water is lower today than it was 100 years ago? Just since 1970 alone, there has been tremendous progress in improving access to clean water. According to the UN stats, India went from 17% to 86%. Indonesia went from 3% to 77%. Brazil went from 55% to 90%. Pakistan went from 21% to 91%. Nigeria went from 38% in 1985 (earlier year listed) to 60%. Bangladesh went from 45% to 75%.

    Are those numbers as high as I’d like? Of course not. But the situation is vastly improved from where it was just 4 decades ago. In another 40 years, maybe we can get close to universal access :-)

  22. As a tough-love small-l libertarian who insists upon looking at root causes, I think Josh Carlson’s bleeding-H attitude is the problem.  Sure, parts of the USA don’t have goods and services A, B and C.  But how does the rest of the USA get by?  They have capabilities X and Y and lack troublesome propensity Z.

    Carlson’s prescription appears to be for government to do things if they’re “lacking”, regardless of cost or the etiology of the problem; it’s not hard to see that this will tend to produce a permanent client class.  This will just add burdens to a system that’s already overloaded.  It’s far better to encourage human capital so that people provide for themselves (which will tend to produce cheaper solutions, as most people are cost-conscious) or avoid problems at the outset.

    Western society invented water systems starting with ancient Rome; it’s not as if there are any great mysteries.  What’s needed to run a water or electrical system is mostly organization and the social capital to get people to pay to build and operate it… or just avoid tearing it apart for the scrap value.  It’s not hard to see that a low-trust society with a low future time preference is likely to be incompatible with good infrastructure like water systems.  No amount of “help” is going to do much without first changing people’s behavior.

    AIDS is a big one.  If most people were monogamous, AIDS would exist in only the small subset that isn’t.  If people practiced safer sex, AIDS would die out as soon as the number of new infections per infected individual fell substantially lower than 1.  You don’t need AIDS medications if AIDS transmission is prevented by social behavior, and you don’t have the massive costs of AIDS either.  Social capital beats high-tech medicine.

    Josh will probably call me Scrooge, but I ask him to try on the shoe marked “Enabler” and see if it doesn’t fit.

  23. I believe that it was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. We are getting to that point.

    I grew up before legal abortion and before reliable birth control (the Pill) and the illegitimacy rate was very low. The current situation of family breakdown says nothing good about our society. As Engineer-Poet says, social capital is important.

  24. Crimson Wife: I supported a family of four for several years one military E2 and E3 pay. That’s about as poor as you can get in this country without qualifying for welfare “having to choose between buying groceries and buying medicine, between paying the electric bill and paying the daycare bill, writing checks they pray to God there will be money in the account to cover before the funds transfer clears, and so on” – and many of them were higher ranking and with higher incomes than us – but we were never hungry, late on bill payments, or writing checks before the money was in the account. Poverty is far less a matter of income than of lacking the self-discipline to pay for necessities before luxuries and stick to a budget.

    I’ve seen people have their heat cut off for nonpayment, in the middle of a Michigan winter, but still manage to spend more on cigarettes than my whole entertainment budget, including this computer and internet service. And I am now a fairly well-paid engineer.

    Now, if I’d been trying to support the same family from a minimum wage job, which pays about the same but without medical benefits and low commissary prices, we’d have been in trouble. But people in that boat generally are suffering the consequences of several stupid choices: they avoided hard work in school, they did not seek other ways to learn valuable job skills, and they chose to begin a family although they could not expect to support it. Minimum-wage jobs are for kids just getting started in the job market, for people with such a criminal record that no one will trust them with a responsible job, and for adults with severe disabilities, and occasionally temporarily for people who lost a good jobs to survive until a better job opens up. The first three groups should not have children in the first place.

    As for the last group, you can land there just by bad luck, but you aren’t actually in need if you saved part of your pay while times were good. Unless, for example, you’re a former GM worker who never paid enough attention to the world around you to realize that you were grossly overpaid for your skills, and those union contracts were going to drive your employer under some day.

  25. Several words were omitted from my first sentence. It should read:

    “Crimson Wife: I supported a family of four for several years on military E2 and E3 pay. That’s about as poor as you can get in this country without qualifying for welfare. I often saw other service members “having to choose between buying groceries and buying medicine, between paying the electric bill and paying the daycare bill, writing checks they pray to God there will be money in the account to cover before the funds transfer clears, and so on” – and many of them were higher ranking and with higher incomes than us – but we were never hungry, late on bill payments, or writing checks before the money was in the account.

  26. One of the biggest factors of determining poverty is an irresponsible choice of lifestyle. I have a relatively intelligent ex-friend who always complains about not being able to pay bills and have health insurance. Yet he is determined to make his four year degree in theater worth something by looking for acting work in LA. He justifies his partying on the weekends as networking.

  27. SuperSub, it may be that his purpose in life is to be a warning to others. ;-)

  28. Josh Carlson says:

    Josh Carlson’s final word about this post on Inequality in our schools, and why it might matter to society. To Mr. Lopez and Engineer Poet: I only meant to say that there is a heck of a lot of more people on the planet today. And I only meant to say that despite all our wealth (our’s and the world’s) we have a HUGE number of people dying do to a false belief that we lack the resources to deliver life saving drugs and clean water. I only meant to say that you people love to argue about stuff (or love to hear the tap tap of your fingers), why don’t you argue about things that are obviously messed up, that if resolved through a few pieces of legislation, or a few decades of work, could solve an awful lot of problems. Things like REAL regulation of our market system: (eliminate Derivative Trading, and credit default swaps, and the gambling and speculation of the traders on wallstreet). Provide heatlhcare and stop crying socialism about everything. Stop giving tax credits/cuts to the ultra rich (estate tax/bush tax cuts to those above 500,000) while holding up legislation for the relief for 9-11 Responders. Stuff like that. We can’t even agree on the stuff that should be a no brainer. The Scarcity Problem, the ‘not enough resources’ is a huge lie. You people are totally content to give away the store and have nice smile on your face as you do it. And i hate these blogs, I was only participating for a grad class. A huge waste of time responding to this trash that passes as conversation. That might be a little harsh, but do you even read what you type?

  29. Josh Carlson says:

    I regret the last two or so sentences of that last comment; it was unfair; i know you all believe in what your saying, just as i do. I suppose it does pass as some sort of conversation. Just not a productive, rational one.