Education Opinion

Rothstein Interview, Part 2: International Comparisons Miss the Mark

By Anthony Cody — May 13, 2009 9 min read
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Earlier this week I posted Part 1 of a four-part interview with author Richard Rothstein. Today I am posting Part 2, which focuses on the dire warnings we have heard over the past few decades, echoed recently by President Obama, that the United States is in danger of falling behind other nations due to our poor educational system.

Question 2: It is often said that our students are falling behind those in other nations. Is this the case? What should we do about it?

American students perform less well in mathematics than students in many other industrialized and in East Asian nations. We do relatively better in elementary and worse in middle and secondary school. Explanations range from an American curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep” (with superficial treatment of too many mathematical topics), to (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers) the fact that Asian languages have more literal words for numbers (“ten-two” rather than “twelve”) and that Asian rice cultivation inspired cultural beliefs in harder work than beliefs inspired by American wheat farming.

Evidence of American inferiority in curricular areas other than math is skimpier. In reading and civics we do quite well on some comparisons.

Do we have an education-driven competitiveness crisis?

These international comparisons don’t really matter. Our math and reading scores are apparently quite adequate for economic competitiveness (although the recent collapse of the speculative bubble may suggest that our biggest shortcoming is in the teaching of ethics, character and judgment).

Until the asset bubble burst last year, American productivity growth was extremely rapid, about 2.2 percent a year from 1989 to 2006, outpacing that of comparable industrial nations whose test scores in mathematics were higher. Some economists now wonder whether our productivity growth was superficial, including, as it does, financial sector gains attributable to the speculation. Yet even if we subtract the contribution of financial services to overall productivity growth both here and abroad, the United States still performed as well as comparable nations, both in absolute productivity and in its rate of growth.

A good education system is necessary for such growth. Well-educated innovators develop new technologies, and well-educated workers can utilize them. Yet our school system seems quite adequate for these purposes.

Most Americans have seen their incomes stagnate in recent decades, even when the economy was growing rapidly. Some commentators (for example, authors of the widely-publicized 2006 report, Tough Choices, Tough Times, issued by the National Center on Education and the Economy) have attempted to blame this income stagnation on the failures of our public schools. But as Lawrence Mishel and I (in an appendix to Grading Education) argued,

while adequate skills are an essential component of productivity growth, workforce skills cannot determine how the wealth created by nation¬al productivity is distributed.... American middle-class living standards are threatened not because workers lack competitive skills but because the richest among us have seized the fruits of productivity growth, denying fair shares to the working- and middle-class Americans, educated in American schools, who have created the additional na¬tional wealth.

Mishel and I also note that crisis warnings about internationally comparative test scores are not new. A quarter-century ago, the Nation at Risk report concluded that failing public schools were responsible for American firms’ loss of market share to Japanese automobiles, German machine tools, and Korean steel. A 1990 report of the same National Center on Education and the Economy engaged in similar hand-wringing. Yet the American economy out-performed the economies of Europe and Asia in the 1990s; indeed Japanese auto manufacturers set up plants in the U.S. and found public high school graduates in the southern states - where test scores are typically lowest - to be appropriately skilled for Japanese manufacturing methods.

We already produce more college graduates than the American economy can absorb. This does not mean that we should stop increasing the rate of college graduation – there are other important reasons to educate a population, having to do with our civic and cultural life, than economic ones.

If we truly had a shortage of skills, simple economic theory would lead us to predict that young college graduates with the greatest skills would see rapid increases in wages. Yet college graduates’ wages have been rising mostly because, before the bubble burst, wages in finance, sales, and administration were going up. Science, technology, engineering, and math wages were mostly stagnant, at best. This indicates no shortage of skills.

Partly, the sufficient skill supply is attributable to immigration of well-educated workers. This immigration will continue, and the entire nation will continue to benefit from an economic surplus of education.

The new McKinsey report
Last month, a report by the McKinsey consulting firm revived the complaint that poor-quality schools threaten our economic security. The report (with an encomium by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times) claimed that the poor achievement of low-income children was costing the nation between $400 billion and $670 billion a year in lost productivity, or 3 to 5 percent of our gross domestic product. The achievement gap, it said, puts the nation into the equivalent of a permanent economic recession will “almost certainly act as a drag on overall U.S. economic performance in the years ahead.”

The McKinsey report came to this conclusion by relying on a regression analysis by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and colleagues, showing a high correlation between countries’ test scores and their economic growth rates: a standard deviation increase in scores (about 33 percentile points for a country with average test scores) is associated with almost 2 percentage points of higher economic growth. McKinsey then took this percentage and multiplied it by the share of low-income and minority participants in the U.S. workforce, by the size of the achievement gap, and by the historical growth rate of the U.S. economy, to calculate its estimate of the hundreds of billions of dollars that the achievement gap costs.

It is safe to guess that few, if any of the journalists who promoted the McKinsey conclusions examined them carefully, or recalled what they had been taught about the dangers of assuming causation from a correlation. The Hanushek regression line relies on facts, for example, such as that South Korea has had high test scores and rapid economic growth while the Philippines has had low test scores and slow growth. But surely nobody can believe that if the Philippines could somehow raise its test scores, that country would then mimic South Korea’s economic growth rates. Although well-educated workers were certainly necessary for South Korean economic success, the country also benefited from enormous American subsidies (Hyundai got started as a contractor for the U.S. military, using U.S. surplus military equipment), its steel industry was initially financed with war reparations from Japan, and the nation followed an industrial policy that prohibited imports, manipulated exchange rates, and provided free credit to favored industries. South Korea had a 30 percent savings rate, with consequent capital investment. The Philippines had none of these advantages or characteristics. Although this is an extreme comparison, every country on Hanushek’s regression line has a unique story that includes more than its test scores.

Hanushek acknowledges that the United States – with low test scores and high economic growth - fits his regression line very poorly. But Hanushek dismisses the significance of this challenge to his theory by saying that American economic success was attributable to “generally less intrusion of government in the operation of the economy,” and weak labor unions. But the regression line still proves, he implausibly claims, that our future economic security will require higher test scores.

This bottom line remains: the United States needs a well-educated population to grow and prosper. Education levels in the U.S. have improved over the nation’s history, and our economy has taken advantage of its workforce education levels. There are many reasons to improve our education system – the quality of our cultural and civic life depend on it. But there is little reason to believe that the American economy has suffered from insufficient workforce skills, or is likely to do so in the future.

Do we have an education crisis?

The area where we fall most short is in the low percentage of students from disadvantaged families who graduate from high school and then college, prepared to compete for the most remunerative and technically skilled jobs that become available in our economy. This is not a problem of international competitiveness - unfortunately, we can compete just fine, using a mostly white and immigrant professional and technical class. It is a problem for our own identity as a nation, for the quality of our civic life, for the integrity and values of our future citizenry. This is the reason to improve our education system, not because of international test score comparisons.

An intriguing result of international testing is that students in some American states, particularly those with relatively few minority and economically disadvantaged students, perform as well as students in the higher scoring countries, even in math and science. The relatively poor achievement of American students overall is attributable, at least in part, to our greater socioeconomic inequality and shamefully high child poverty rate, compared with other advanced nations.

And that shamefully high rate of child poverty is destined to go much higher as unemployment continues to rise in the current recession. Estimates by Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute are that the child poverty rate will rise from 18% to 27%, and the rate for black children will rise from 35% to 52%: yes, over half of all black children will likely soon be living in families with income below the poverty line. This will have a palpable impact on academic achievement – they and their families will be under greater stress; they will be more mobile, changing schools and teachers more often; their dreams of college will be dashed. Other industrialized countries have a stronger safety net to help vulnerable sub-populations weather the worldwide recession. The economic catastrophe we are now suffering will inevitably widen the achievement gap.

This, and not a false focus on international test comparisons, should be the crisis that grabs our attention.

Once we have recovered from the recession, we will not succeed in sharing our renewed prosperity with youth from disadvantaged families without doing a better job of preparing them to take advantage of what schools have to offer. Last year, a diverse and bi-partisan group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers called for a “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA)” (www.boldapproach.org) that would combine school improvement with the social, economic, family and community supports that enhance achievement. In particular, BBA urges the nation and the states to narrow the achievement gap by implementing high-quality early childhood care and education for all disadvantaged children; by providing routine and preventive pediatric, dental, and optometric care for all disadvantaged children (in full service school-based health centers, for example); and by ensuring that disadvantaged children have access to enriched academic content, as well as opportunities for social and emotional skill-building in cultural, organizational and athletic experiences during out-of-school time (after-school, weekend, school-year vacation, and summer hours).

Richard Rothstein’s latest book, Grading Education, Getting Accountability Right is now available. Rothstein is also part of the new project A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Part Three, coming next Monday, will describe the effects NCLB has had on our curriculum, and what Campbell’s Law tells us about the distortion of our goals.

What do you think? Should we focus more attention on childhood poverty and less on international comparisons?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.