Here’s what everybody knows about education in the United States. It’s broken. It’s failing our poorest students and codding the richest. Americans are falling desperately behind the rest of the developed world.
But here’s what a new study from the Economic Policy Institute tells us about America’s education system: Every one of those common assumptions is simplistic, misguided, or downright wrong.
When you break down student performance by social class, a more complicated, yet more hopeful, picture emerges, highlighted by two pieces of good news. First, our most disadvantaged students have improved their math scores faster than most comparable countries. Second, our most advantaged students are world-class readers.
Why break down international test scores by social class? In just about every country, poor students do worse than rich students. America’s yawning income inequality means our international test sample has a higher share of low-income students, and their scores depress our national average. An apples-to-apples comparison of Americans students to their international peers requires us to control for social class and compare the performances of kids from similarly advantaged and disadvantaged homes.
That’s precisely what Martin Carnoy, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and Richard Rothstein have done in their new paper, “What Do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance?” Carnoy and Rothstein dive into international standardized tests and compare U.S. performance, by social class, to three post-industrial countries (Germany, the UK, and France) and three top-scoring countries (Canada, Finland, and Korea).