Every Number Needs a Denominator

By 03/18/2011

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Every number needs a denominator, my statistics professor taught me in my first year of graduate school.  Raw numbers can be dreadfully misleading, he said.  To know if a country is lurching toward bankruptcy, one needs to know the debt/GDP ratio rather than the size of the debt. Otherwise, you might conclude the United States is worse off than Greece.

Elementary, Watson.  Not worth a blog post, were it not for Michael Petrilli’s misleading blog post the other day, full of fancy figures, that risks being interpreted as saying that the United States is doing vastly better than Finland—and many other small countries–at producing high-achieving students.

One judges a country’s educational system capacity to challenge its most talented students by calculating the proportion of its students that are advanced in math, science and reading, not the raw number.

It’s true that the United States is big, second in population size only to India and China.  But it has dominated the world economy for many decades not simply because it was a large country but because it also had an educated citizenry.  However, other countries are catching up in that regard. And now that the Chinese are creating a top-flight education system, the United States will be greatly challenged not only by Finland, Korea and Canada but by the biggest country of all.

– Paul E. Peterson

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