U.S. Students from Educated Families Fall Short in Math Proficiency on Global Stage

Eric Hanushek: hanushek@stanford.edu, Stanford University
Paul E. Peterson: (617) 495-8312/495-7976, Harvard University
Ludger Woessmann: woessmann@ifo.de, University of Munich
Ashley Inman: ashley_inman@hks.harvard.edu, 707 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

U.S. Students from Educated Families Fall Short in Math Proficiency on Global Stage

U.S. ranks 27th out of 34 OECD countries overall; 28th among students with at least one college-educated parent

Is it true that the only problem with America’s schools is too many poor kids raised in less educated families? According to a new study, the answer is a clear no.

Parental education has long been shown to be the best family background indicator of a student’s readiness to learn at school, and the United States’ comparatively low proficiency rates are often attributed to the large numbers of students who come from disadvantaged families, such as those where parents do not have a high school diploma. However, a new study appearing in Education Next finds that U.S. schools do as badly at teaching those from better-educated families as they do at teaching those from less well-educated families.

Among U.S. students who come from high-education families, 43% are proficient in math, 42% are proficient in reading and 40% are proficient in science. The country ranks 27th among 34 industrialized nations for math proficiency overall, and when compared to students from well-educated families in other OECD countries, the U.S. drops to 28th, far behind countries including Korea, Poland, Japan, Germany, Canada and France.

Researchers Eric Hanushek (Stanford University), Paul Peterson (Harvard University), and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich) examine the recently released 2012 PISA (Program on International Student Assessment) data, gathered from tests administered to 15-year olds in the 34 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). They make an apples-to-apples comparison of the data to determine if students of similar family backgrounds do better in the United States than in other countries.

To equate proficiency and performance rates across states and countries, the researchers execute a statistical crosswalk between standards identified by the NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) and the PISA tests. They look at reading and science as well as math, and find that results are nearly the same. They also examine how each U.S. state ranks relative to the 33 other OECD countries.

As parental education has been shown to be a reliable indicator of a student’s readiness to learn at school, the researchers categorized students into 1) those with a parent who had a college degree, 2) those with a parent who had only a high school diploma, and 3) those whose parent(s) did not have a high school diploma. While only 17% of students from low-education families tested proficient in math as compared to 43% of high-education families, when compared to students of well-educated families in other countries, the U.S. fails miserably. Proficiency among better-educated families that vastly outrank the U.S. include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Germany (64%), Canada (57%), France (55%), and Australia (55%) The U.S. out-performs only Italy, Turkey, Sweden, Greece, Chile and Mexico.

In a recent speech, education secretary Arne Duncan recently challenged those who cling to the belief that American schools are exceptional. The “educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s about many kids in many neighborhoods.”

“Our new analysis of international data presented in the study shows that the Secretary’s comments are accurate,” says Paul Peterson. “The United States has two achievement gaps to be bridged—the one between the advantaged and the disad¬vantaged and the one between itself and its peers abroad. Neither goal need be sacrificed to attain the other,” Peterson concludes.

U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests: It’s not just about kids in poor neighborhoods” will be available at https://www.educationnext.org/us-students-educated-families-lag-international-tests as of 12:01AM on Tuesday May 13, and will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of Education Next. Interactive maps showing the distribution of scores for states as well as for countries will also be available in the online version of the article.

An unabridged version of this study will be released at the same time at www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG14_01_NotJust.pdf.

About the Authors
Eric A. Hanushek is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Paul E. Peterson is professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Ludger Woessmann is professor of econom¬ics and director of the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education and Innovation at the University of Munich. Authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.

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