When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”
The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.
Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.
Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.
While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue. Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”
Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude. The U.S. is not an outlier.
Socioeconomic disadvantage — such as few books in the home — explains some of the gap in scores, according to a report by three economists. “Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Stanford’s Martin Carnoy told the New York Times.
“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,” countered Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”
According to OECD’s disadvantage index, which includes “parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status,” less than 15 percent of U.S. students “come from the bottom rung of society,” reports the Times. “And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.”