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Article in the Atlantic Monthly Worth a Read

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November 10, 2010 07:45 pm


The story, Your Child Left Behind, by Amanda Ripley is about a recent study authored by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and two of his colleagues. The report tests what the Hanushek calls the “diversity excuse” or the phenomenon of parents believing that although their public schools are in poor shape their kids are doing just fine. Here is an excerpt from the article:

These days, the theory Hanushek hears most often is what we might call the diversity excuse. When he runs into his neighbors at Palo Alto coffee shops, they lament the condition of public schools overall, but are quick to exempt the schools their own kids attend. “In the litany of excuses, one explanation is always, ‘We’re a very heterogeneous society—all these immigrants are dragging us down. But our kids are doing fine,’” Hanushek says. This latest study was designed, in part, to test the diversity excuse.

To do this, Hanushek, along with Paul Peterson at Harvard and Ludger Woessmann at the University of Munich, looked at the American kids performing at the top of the charts on an international math test. (Math tests are easier to normalize across countries, regardless of language barriers; and math skills tend to better predict future earnings than other skills taught in high school.) Then, to get state-by-state data, they correlated the results of that international test with the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, which is given to a much larger sample in the U.S. and can be used to draw statewide conclusions…Of course, the fact that no U.S. state does very well compared with other rich nations does not necessarily disprove the diversity excuse: parents in Palo Alto could reasonably infer that California’s poor ranking (in the bottom third, just above Portugal and below Italy) is a function of the state’s large population of poor and/or immigrant children, and does not reflect their own kids’ relatively well-off circumstances.

So Hanushek and his co-authors sliced the data more thinly still. They couldn’t control for income, since students don’t report their parents’ salaries when they take these tests; but they could use reliable proxies. How would our states do if we looked just at the white kids performing at high levels—kids who are not, generally speaking, subject to language barriers or racial discrimination? Or if we looked just at kids with at least one college-educated parent?

As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.

International Comparisons

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