The Agenda

Are Tino Sanandaji and the NEA on the Same Page on U.S. Educational Performance?

A brief Twitter exchange with Matt Yglesias reminded me of Tino Sanandaji’s intriguing post on the latest PISA results. As many of us have long suspected, disaggregating U.S. performance on PISA yields the conclusion that students of European and Asian origin perform extremely well, while other Americans perform less well. The trouble, of course, is that the demographics of the U.S. are changing. As of 2008, 11,065,000 Americans under the age of 5 are non-Hispanic whites out of a total of 21,006,000 under-5s. Another 931,000 are of Asian origin. If our schools aren’t serving the remainder of the U.S. population very well, it’s fairly clear that something has gone badly wrong. 

Note that the U.S. has a smaller gap between the performance of native students and immigrant students than most advanced countries. The Finns, Diane Ravitch’s favorite model, perform very poorly on this score, i.e., immigrant children in Finnish schools perform far less well than native Finns. In a country like ours with a fairly large proportion of foreign-born students, it seems fairly clear that at least this aspect of the Finnish model would be a massive problem. 

Cynthia McCabe of the NEA (thanks to Matt for the link) highlights Tino’s findings in a different, somewhat more politically congenial (for the NEA’s purposes, that is) way:


In schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai, China which topped the ranking with a score of 556.

* In schools where 75 percent or more of the students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score was 446. That’s off the bottom of the charts, below last-place Greece’s 483.

Money matters and countless studies have demonstrated a link between parents’ income and students’ test scores.

But again, as we’ve seen, there are countries with lower concentrations of poverty that do less well than U.S. schools and countries and regions with higher concentrations of poverty that do better. Gerald Tirozzi’s basic contention that students attending high-poverty schools need “intensive supports” is clearly correct. Of course, these “intensive supports” could include more cost-effective, higher-quality instruction, free of the rigid work rules that unions and traditional school districts have agreed upon over the years. 

One could argue that members of the Luso-Hispanic and African origin populations in the advanced market democracies pose unique challenges to educators. I’m not sure this is true. Many Luso-Hispanic populations face difficulties in mastering the dominant language, and, as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has observed, there is a persistent pattern of family disruption in virtually all of the African origin populations in the “Black Atlantic,” with female-headed households proving somewhat more common, etc. 

But by global standards, African-Americans are an affluent, upwardly mobile population, and the real puzzle is why schools haven’t proven more responsive to the needs of this population, which may or may not be distinctive. Stuart Buck’s argument in Acting White offers one possible answer. My guiding heuristics suggest to me that more flexibility and more trial-and-error learning and more consumer choice, which goes beyond “school choice,” are the way forward. All of this, of course, is very contested.

Why aren’t European- and Asian-origin kids doing better? Even if we bracket the challenges facing Luso-Hispanic and African American students, Tino’s charts tell us that European- and Asian-origin students are performing far less well than students in poorer countries. We’d expect European-origin students in Greenwich, Connecticut to perform better than European-origin students in Yazoo City, Mississippi. And the United States, in terms of GDP per capita, is closer to being the Greenwich of the OECD than the Yazoo City. The NEA, and Tino, would have you believe that it is very, very impressive that Greenwich is treading water with Yazoo. I don’t buy it.

When we consider Asian-origin students, the picture is more egregious. Tino writes:

For Asian-American students (remember this includes Vietnam, Thailand and other less developed countries outside Northeast Asia), the mean PISA score is 534, same as 533 for the average of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Here we have two biases going in opposite directions: Asians in the U.S are selected. On the other hand we are comparing the richest and best scoring Asian countries with all Americans with origin in South and East Asia.

Singapore and Hong Kong are in our GDP neighborhood. But we blow Japan and South Korea out of the water. And while Americans of Southeast Asian origin tend to be somewhat less affluent than those of Japanese and Korean origin, Asian-Americans are concentrated in high-cost, high-wage metropolitan areas. Many indicators, including life expectancy, mark this as a relatively privileged population. 

Imagine how well we could be doing if we actually allowed specialization, the essential driver of productivity growth, to work its magic. When we consider the explosive growth of private tuition services like Kumon, we also have to wonder the extent to which private tuition services are helping to prop up our educational system’s performance. Consider that Americans tend to have more disposable income than citizens of other advanced market democracies, at least some of which can be devoted to supplemental instruction. After all, parents have fairly strong incentives to secure educational advantages for their children. This suggests that our schools are performing very poorly indeed. 

Don’t believe the hype.


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