Why the U.S is behind other countries in student achievement in math and science

(Note, March 18, 6:30 p.m.: many more comments have been added to this thread.)

The lead editorial in the March 14 New York Times begins with this:

The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They don’t have vast populations of blacks (average IQ 85) and nonwhite Hispanics (average IQ 90) amounting to over one quarter of the total population of the country—

Whoops, sorry, I was letting myself daydream there for a minute…. Let’s start over again. Here’s the lead editorial in last Sunday’s New York Times:

The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They offer the same high education standards—often the same curriculum—from one end of the nation to the other. The United States relies on a generally mediocre patchwork of standards that vary, not just from state to state, but often from district to district. A child’s education depends primarily on ZIP code.

That could eventually change if the states adopt the new rigorous standards proposed last week by the National Governors Association and a group representing state school superintendents. The proposal lays out clear, ambitious goals for what children should learn year to year and could change curriculums, tests and teacher training.

The standards, based on intensive research, reflect what students must know to succeed at college and to find good jobs in the 21st century. [LA replies: Let’s get this straight. At present, blacks, who are of course the Times’ main but unspoken concern, have an average reading ability four years behind whites. Meaning that black high school seniors on average have an eighth grade reading ability. And Obama, backed by the Times, expects high school seniors with eighth grade reading abilities not only to bring themselves up to average reading ability for their grade (which represents a very undemanding standard) but to go to college?] They are internationally benchmarked, which means that they emulate the expectations of high-performing school systems abroad.

This is not a call for a national curriculum. Rather, the proposed standards set out the skills that children should learn from kindergarten through high school. The proposals are writing-intensive and vertically aligned, building in complexity each year. The goal is to develop strong reasoning skills earlier than is now customary. [LA replies: I must be stupid, but why would nationalized standards necessarily be higher than state standards? Especially given the fact that in Obama’s proposed changes to the national No Child Left Behind Act, standards are going to be significantly lowered in order to eliminate the poor scores of black and Hispanic children and thus reduce the number of “failing” schools?]

By fifth grade, for example, students would be required to write essays in which they introduce, support and defend opinions, using specific facts and details. And by 12th grade, students would be expected to solve problems or answer questions by conducting focused research projects—and display skills generally associated today with the first year of college.

The quest for stronger, more coherent standards dates back to the iconic “Nation at Risk” report of 1983, which warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” was jeopardizing the country’s future. The problem of weak standards became vividly apparent after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which required the states to document student progress with annual tests in exchange for federal aid.

Most states that reported stronger performance on their own weak tests did far worse on the more the rigorous federal test. This showed that American children were performing far more poorly in reading and math than state education officials wanted the public to know. [LA replies: Ahh yes, the states tended to make their own tests or scoring easier so as to avoid having so many of their schools classified as “failing.” But of course the “failing” grade was inevitable given the lower IQs and chaotic family backgrounds of the black and Hispanic children in those schools, and therefore it was inevitable that states and schools would seek to make their own tests and standards easier. But I repeat that the Obama administration also intends to lower standards so as to reduce the incidence of failing schools, only it intends to do it on the national instead of the state level. We can therefore be reasonably confident that the higher standards lovingly described by the Times are so much malarkey.]

As recently as the early 1990s, national standards were viewed with suspicion in much of the country. Attitudes began to change as governors saw that poor schooling had crippled a significant part of the work force, turned state colleges into remedial institutions and disadvantaged the states in the global market.

The proposed standards were developed in a collaboration among 48 states and the District of Columbia, suggesting that national opinion, once bitterly divided on this question, has begun to coalesce.

But it will take more than new standards to rebuild the schools. The same states and organizations that cooperated on the standards need to cooperate on a new and innovative curriculum. The notoriously troubled colleges of education need to prepare teachers who can teach the skills students will need. And sophisticated tests must be created so that we can measure results.

The new standards provide an excellent starting point for the task of remaking public schooling in the United States. [LA replies: The editorial gives not a single reason to believe that national standards and curriculum would be any better than state standards and curricula. The Times’ argument makes as much sense as saying that federal standards will be superior to state standards because “F” (for federal) is closer to the letter “A” (for excellence) than is the letter “S” (for state). Meaning, it is utterly devoid of sense. It is the mindless rehearsal of a dogma.]

- end of initial entry -

Jim C. writes:

Fabulous—I was dreaming alongside you

Hannon writes:

The NYT editorial says:

“The goal is to develop strong reasoning skills earlier than is now customary.”

Would this not preclude the continuation of liberal indoctrination in itself?

On a more serious note, I see that this article, like almost all others of its type, has virtually nothing to say about the benefits of improving the system for the sake of society. The entire argument is couched in “job or career readiness,” “college preparation,” “higher earnings,” and meeting the demands of the workplace or markets.

I would argue it is of greater importance to achieve these improvements in student performance so that we may build a more socially productive, just, creative and ethical society. Focusing on the machinery of our education systems and the “products” they generate to keep the economy going is fine so long as the betterment of the citizenry at large is also borne in mind. Comfortable employment does not a good society make.

These benefits do not have to be front-and-center or even programmatic but they need to be extant in the minds of those who shape the curricula that shape young minds.

LA replies:

Absolutely. For decades now, discussions of education have been couched solely in terms of what is best for “our children.” As though the children were the sole object of education, and the consumers of education. No. Education is for the benefit and well being of society as a whole. Children don’t know what’s good for them. It’s the adults who are supposed to know what’s good for children—for the children’s own growth in intellect, yes, but also for the transmission of culture and for the continuation of society.

March 18

Kilroy M. writes:

Inclusiveness will always end up in a programme of reducing standards to the lowest common denominator. This is because formal equality is a patent nonsense. Standards provide a benchmark to which people are expected to excel. If they are lowered, so too is incentive, meaning that people’s achievement will in fact start to drop. Hence the continual dumbing down of education, the weakening of the military, and the general abasement of culture.

Ferg writes:

The NYT editorial says:

The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They offer the same high education standards—often the same curriculum—from one end of the nation to the other. The United States relies on a generally mediocre patchwork of standards that vary, not just from state to state, but often from district to district. A child’s education depends primarily on ZIP code.

Prior to the establishment of the Federal Dept. of Education the standards for public educational performance were higher during the Nineteen Fifties when I was in junior and senior high school, and far higher when my parents were in school. This despite the fact that schools were largely on their own in all respects. How does the Times account for that? Also, is not the crack about a child’s education depending on ZIP code rather inflammatory?

Peter H. writes:

It’s fascinating to read articles like this since I’ve become a race realist. Charles Murray had an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago showing that, whether we make tests more difficult or less, the black-white pass rate gap can be predicted based on the white pass rate using data from the essentially unchanging shape and position of the “bell curve” (unchanging over the last one hundred years, at any rate).

So, if uniform standards are set, whether at state or national levels, there will always be an achievement gap against which we will, apparently, continue to beat our heads.

Bill from Maryland writes:

NYT: “The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They don’t have vast populations of blacks (average IQ 85) and nonwhite Hispanics (average IQ 90) amounting to over one quarter of the total population of the country—”

The effect of underperforming minorities on U.S. scores in international comparisons can actually be assessed from the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results. The document “International Outcomes of Learning in Mathematics Literacy and Problem Solving: PISA 2003 Results From the U.S. Perspective” reports:

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that measures 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy every 3 years.

In 2003, U.S. performance in mathematics literacy and problem solving was lower than the average performance for most OECD countries. The United States also performed below the OECD average on each mathematics literacy subscale representing a specific content area …

In both mathematics literacy and problem solving, the average scores for Blacks and Hispanics were below the respective OECD average scores, while scores for Whites were above the OECD average scores. Students who were White, Asian, and of more than one race scored at level 3 in mathematics literacy, compared to level 2 for Hispanic students and level 1 for Black students (figure 11, exhibit (5).

Here are U.S. results broken down by race in figure 11, referred to above.

(The full pdf, complete with charts and tables, seems to be no longer available (expecting this, I kept a copy on my hard drive). A summary can be found here: http://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/commissioner/remarks2004/1262004.asp)

The scores for U.S. whites in the math test is 512, i.e. above the level of France and below Denmark. In the problem solving test our score is 506, at the level of Iceland and Austria. (Sorry for poor quality of this image, original was undersized).

Thanks to our diversity, the actual position of the U.S. is somewhere between Spain and Portugal for both tests. Apart from whites, blacks and Hispanics, there are two other recorded groups: “Asian and “More than one race.” These two form only a small proportion of the U.S. population, and score well above the level of blacks and Hispanics, so their presence would not substantially affect the overall U.S. average.

(The UK was excluded from the survey for technical reasons)

A. Zarkov writes:

I’m surprised that the New York Times continues to beat this dead horse. The so-called “lack of student achievement in math and science” meme mainly serves the American tech industry’s lust for cheap labor via the H1-B non-immigrant visa program. This industry constantly lobbies Congress to expand the H1-B program under the false premise that we have a tech worker shortage because America’s school system does not produce enough engineers, scientists and mathematicians. It’s an absolute lie. We have a surplus of tech workers, not a shortage, and there’s abundant data to show that. The U.S. educational system produces an ample number of highly skilled people. This editorial is yet another example of liberalism run amuck, creating problems where there are none to expand the role of government into every nook and cranny of our lives.

UC Davis professor of computer science Norm Matloff is probably our most knowledgeable authority the H1-B issue, and he summarizes the arguments against the program here. Naturally his opposition has to play the race card, and accuses him of being racist and anti-Chinese. This is typical. Here’s an excerpt.

Dr. Norman Matloff is a man on a mission. He pretends to be an upstanding Jewish member of the Chinese community, yet no one has done more to insult and defame Chinese since the 1800s in the days of the Working Man’s Party than Mr. Matloff. He is the sole inheritor of the legacy of the anti-Chinese movements of the late 19th century West, though he himself is the member of a group that has suffered much at the hands of racial hatred. He has the nerve to call the kettle black by banging the drum that immigrants and Asians are racist, but is himself making racist attacks on immigrants.

Note, Norm Matloff considers himself a liberal Democrat. He taught himself Mandarin Chinese and married a Chinese woman. I have know him and there’s not a racist bone in his body. Since his opposition can’t rebut him with facts, they go for character assassination. This is liberalism. But let’s return to the math and science issue.

It’s true that the average score for U.S. students on international math and science tests, is mediocre, but the average is not informative. Here’s why. As Mr. Auster points out, the U.S. now has a large, low-IQ black and Hispanic underclass. This low-performing underclass causes the distribution of test scores to become bimodal. Unlike the familiar Bell Curve, the average tells you nothing about the typical score. Here an illustrative example. If you live a place that’s broiling hot for half the year, and bitterly cold for the rest, would the average temperature tell you anything about the climate? Absolutely not. The average would indicate a balmy place.

What really matters are the scores of the high performing students, say the top 10 percent. When you compare the average U.S. scores for this group to similarly defined foreign groups, the U.S. is no longer mediocre. It comes out on top or near the top. Let’s do some numbers to show why this must happen.

U.S. blacks have an average IQ of 85, Hispanics 90, and Asians about 103. The white IQ is 100. Hispanics constitute 15 percent of the population, while blacks and Asians are 14 percent and 5 percent respectively. We can put all these groups together to get an overall distribution IQs, which will be multimodal instead of bimodal. If the U.S. were 100 percent white, then the top 10 percent would correspond to an IQ of 119.2, or about two standard deviations (white IQs have a standard deviation of 15). Using current U.S. demographics, 7.8 percent of the U.S. population is the top 10 percent. As we go higher up the IQ ladder, the difference from a 100 percent white population shrinks. For example, 0.38 percent of the white population has an IQ above 140. This drops to 0.30 percent for the actual population. Hardly different.

Now let’s look at the other end. Half the white population has an IQ less than 100, but 58 percent of the actual mixed race population falls below 100. We can readily see from these calculations that the average scores of U.S. students gets dragged down by the underclass, but not the top scores. Thus even if we could raise the IQs of the underclass it would make little difference to the available supply of engineers, scientists and mathematicians, which is already more than adequate. The entire New York Times editorial is both false and ignorant. We don’t need national standards. We need to get rid of the Department of Education which is a waste of money.

Mick writes:

In connection with this article I would like to bring your and your readers’ attention to a tremendous injustice done to the boys residing in suburbs and rural areas in the most important area of basketball.

It is obvious from racial composition of the NBA where whites, while 75 percent of population, are only 20 percent of players that a very high paying profession is denied to white boys. It is obvious that extremely bad coaches in suburban and rural schools have a bigotry of low expectations for white boys. What else could explain this depravity?

Time to have a national emergency program that will help superb coaches in ghetto schools to move to suburbia and fix unacceptable crisis in white player representation in NBA.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 17, 2010 08:49 PM | Send

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