The vast American lumpenproletariat

Taking social class into account, U.S. students are doing better than it seems on international tests, compared to students in France, Germany, Britain, Canada, Finland and Korea, according to a study by Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein. “U.S. students’ scores are low in part because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students come from disadvantaged social class groups,” they argue.

Stuff and nonsense, responds Paul Peterson in Education Next.  The Carnoy-Rothstein studied ignored family income, which is just as high in the U.S. as in the comparison countries. It uses one factor to determine social class:  The number of books 15-year old students estimate are in their home.

Only 18 percent of U. S. students say they have many books in their home; in the other countries this percentage varies between 20 percent and 31 percent. In the United States 38 percent say they have few books in their home. In the other countries, this percentage varies between 14 percent and 30 percent.

Students’ estimates of book in the home is a good predictor of student achievement, writes Peterson. But there’s a chicken-and-egg issue.

. . . reports of books in the home may be as much a consequence of good schools and innate student ability as an independent cause of student achievement. Students who find it easy to read are likely to report more books in their home, because they are more aware of them. Students attending an effective school are more likely to be good readers who are then aware of the resources at home. Countries that expect students to perform well on a national examination when they finish secondary school may induce higher rates of reading than countries that do not set clear standards for high school students.

Only 14 percent of Korean students come from few-book homes, compared to 38 percent of U.S. students, and 31 percent of Korean students come from homes with many books, while only 18 percent of American students do. It’s “bizarre” to assert that Korea’s upper class is nearly twice as large as in the U.S., and that our lower class is nearly triple the size of Korea’s, writes Peterson. The U.S. does not have a vanishing bourgeoisie and a vast proletariat.

The study encourages people to think that U.S. schools are just fine — except for inner-city schools, which face an impossible challenge because the kids’ homes are no good, Peterson writes. Good reading habits — which schools can do something about — “are much more important to achievement than family income and other measures of social class.”

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  1. twitter_jameslgb says:

    Will books in the home be a relevant statistic in the future? with the rise of e-books and free books on the internet will there be a need to have the classics on the shelf when you can just get them for free from the internet?

    • Board books won’t go away. I’m a lot more entertained by my 11-month-old chasing me down to read to her the board book she’s sucking on than when I catch her biting my Kindle!

  2. Jason Malloy and Steve Sailer have disaggregated US PISA results by race and shown that US whites, Hispanics and Asians compare individually very well with countries predominantly of corresponding ethnicity. US whites score above most white countries. US Hispanics outscore most Latin American countries and US Asians are only 20 points behind Shanghai Chinese. The Asian category in the US includes South Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, etc as well as Northeast Asians. If scores were available for Americans of Northeast Asian descent the difference between them and the Shanghai Chinese might be very slight.

    In short the US school system appears to be among the best in the world given the quality of the students. Of course an educational system like that of Japan will produce considerably higher average scores than the US but that is explained by a Japanese population with an average IQ of 107.

  3. cranberry says:

    The only proper answer to the question, “How many books are in your home?” is, “Not enough.”

    “It’s “bizarre” to assert that Korea’s upper class is nearly twice as large as in the U.S., and that our lower class is nearly triple the size of Korea’s, writes Peterson. The U.S. does not have a vanishing bourgeoisie and a vast proletariat. ”

    Well, I’d disagree with Mr. (Dr.?) Peterson. It makes a certain intuitive sense. Koreans are better positioned for the economy of the future, which will rely on services rather than manufacturing. Koreans are exporting students, rather than importing students.

    The factory-owner’s son who plays golf, but never reads, was well-situated for 1950. The librarian’s son who’s swapping memes online with friends, while studying for the Stuyvesant entrance exam, is well-situated for 2050.

    I would imagine it’s very hard to measure social class by income, as I think any such measure should include debt levels. It’s easier to measure the number of books in the home. A 15 year old probably has a better idea of how many books are in his home, than of his parents’ investment portfolio.

    • Ze'ev Wurman says:

      Koreans may be “better positioned for the economy of the future” — or not — but the reason they (and most other Asian Tigers) export students is not because they have bigger middle class than the US but because if one fails to qualify for their public universities — a rather high bar — one is essentially left out of the system. Private colleges are few, tend to be of low quality, and do not provide serious career cachet for their students. So it makes sense for those who fail entry to simply pay the cost of an American college and come back to Korea with a “prestigious” degree from CSU or UC. Same is even more true for graduate studies.

      Further, some economies (e.g., India) still can’t absorb large numbers of talented graduates and the American economic opportunities still attract them.

  4. Crimson Wife says:

    Given how cheap used books are (at my local Friends of Library shop children’s titles are $0.25 for paperback and $0.50 for hardback), I have a hard time believing that finances are the primary reason behind the lack of books in the “few books” homes. For the cost of 1 month of cable/satellite TV (which 90% of U.S. homes have), a parent could fill several shelves with used books. Cultural poverty is the issue much more than monetary poverty.

  5. cranberry says:

    What determines social class? I think the possession of cultural capital is a better indicator than the possession of money, once basic needs are met. A child may be physically healthy, well-nourished, and attend good schools, but that doesn’t mean he will seek knowledge.

    Of course the illiterate won’t possess books, but the ability to read a book doesn’t translate into wanting to repeat the experience. Even if all basic physical needs are met, many people are quite happy to watch tv, play golf, and collect tchotckes, rather than read. I know some very nice people who can read, but choose not to.

    If education raises one’s social class, that would explain why so many parents are willing to go deeply into debt to finance college education: a college degree increases one’s social class, whereas money does not.