America, the Below Average
Amanda Ripley considers the results when one compares high-end test scores in math:
We’ve known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?
Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.
One intention of researcher Eric Hanushek was to determine the validity of the diversity excuse: whether America’s diversity explains its poor results, on average, because our best and brightest have a much broader spectrum holding down comparisons with other nations. Sadly, even our most privileged students don’t do very well. I’d argue, as the article mentions, that American education is far too mired in a “no child left behind” mentality that places the focus on bringing up the bottom, with no provision for the brightest students to reach their own potential. (Did somebody say, “school choice”?)
Even so, Massachusetts proves that, while Americans can’t hope to match Singapore, Japan and Chinese Taipei are at least within reach:
Is it because Massachusetts is so white? Or so immigrant-free? Or so rich? Not quite. Massachusetts is indeed slightly whiter and slightly better-off than the U.S. average. But in the late 1990s, it nonetheless lagged behind similar states—such as Connecticut and Maine—in nationwide tests of fourth- and eighth-graders. It was only after a decade of educational reforms that Massachusetts began to rank first in the nation.
What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn’t do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school—a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy. To help tutor the kids who failed, the state moved money around to the places where it was needed most. “We had a system of standards and held people to it—adults and students,” Driscoll says.
Rhode Island parents with children in the public school system should come down like a ton of bricks on Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee if he attempts to roll back Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s efforts in that direction. Just go ahead use an interactive tool that accompanies the article to compare Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Pick RI first and then be prepared to gasp upon bringing up the results for MA.
When it comes to math, our little state is in the league of Alabama and, internationally, Turkey. Only an electorate dominated by the constituencies to blame for those results would be content to let them continue for a single additional year.