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February 07, 2013 2:52 PM The International Performance Question

By Daniel Luzer

The release of international student achievement data is virtually always followed by “we’re falling behind” shouting fest, as pundits and politicians clamor to use American performance relative to Germany/Japan/Singapore/South Korea to support the need for their education reform ideas.

But how much can education reform alone improve education performance? A serious look at social class, it turns out, might matter a lot more.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement released national average results from the 2011 administration of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in December. It revealed unsurprising trends. Low U.S. performance relative to other industrialized countries, but continuring improvement in certain areas.

The U.S. Department of Education quickly (seriously, it can probably write these things up years in advance) issued a press release in which the Department characterized the results as “unacceptable” and argued that the data “underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps.” But the Department also points out that:

Students in highly-diverse states like Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina excelled internationally in a number of subject areas, showing that demography is not destiny in our schools. State and local policy matter—and can have a powerful influence in advancing or slowing educational progress. These new assessments put to rest the myth that America’s schools cannot be among the world’s top-performing school systems.

Well yes, but what would we need to do to make that happen? According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, it might be useful to take a look at the actual demographics of the high-performing nations. As the paper explains:

Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.
Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.

But, of course, U.S. performance doesn’t just “appear to be relatively low.” It actually is low. And that’s a problem. EPI:

If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the United States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and average math scores in the United States would be about the same as average math scores in similar post-industrial countries.

But we don’t have a social class distribution is similar to those of contemporary France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. We have a social class distribution similar to that of Czarist Russia.

But it’s similarly inappropriate to exclude poor students from the summary and then conclude that U.S. education is high performing enough; the country just has a lot more poor students. And those students aren’t being well educated.

It’s worth pointing out that increasingly standards and greater accountability in schools may be working. As the EPI report explains, “disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform better… than comparable students in similar post-industrial countries in reading. In math, disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform about the same as comparable students in similar post-industrial countries.” So it’s true that “demography is not destiny in our schools,” but demography is pretty important.

This doesn’t mean that school reform efforts focusing on teacher quality, more testing, and more sanctions based on test scores won’t work, it just means that such efforts are attempting to fix a problem (low standards in schools) that is perhaps secondary to the one that really matters (high poverty in America). And this means that the reform efforts probably won’t work that well.

It’s true that, as many school reformers point out, teacher quality is the best in-school predictor of student performance, but the United States doesn’t have low performance because its teachers are a lot worse than those in other developed countries; the country has low performance because it has a lot more poor students.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer