Conservatives love to hate public schools and public school teachers.

Every chance they get, conservatives (more properly called “regressives”) blame public schools for the poor educational outcomes of students in poor neighborhoods. They also point to the supposed low performance of American students compared to students of other countries.

A teacher and her students in an elementary school classroom
Image source: wikipedia

For a while I’ve been wondering how American’s K-12 schools would rank against schools in other countries if we adjusted for the large lower class in the U.S. Does poverty explain most or all of the poor performance of American students? I found my answer in this article by the Economic Policy Institute, What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance? In summary:

  • Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.
  • If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the United States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and average math scores in the United States would be about the same as average math scores in similar post-industrial countries.
  • A re-estimated U.S. average PISA score that adjusted for a student population in the United States that is more disadvantaged than populations in otherwise similar post-industrial countries, and for the over-sampling of students from the most-disadvantaged schools in a recent U.S. international assessment sample, finds that the U.S. average score in both reading and mathematics would be higher than official reports indicate (in the case of mathematics, substantially higher).
  • This re-estimate would also improve the U.S. place in the international ranking of all OECD countries, bringing the U.S. average score to sixth in reading and 13th in math. Conventional ranking reports based on PISA, which make no adjustments for social class composition or for sampling errors, and which rank countries irrespective of whether score differences are large enough to be meaningful, report that the U.S. average score is 14th in reading and 25th in math.

In short, we can blame poverty, not public schools, for most of the problems with American education.

The correlation between poverty and test scores is evident in this graph from Duke University’s Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence:

Student test scores are strongly correlated with Poverty

As reported in New Report Documents Effects of Childhood Poverty on Education, Adult Life

A comparison of children from homes below and above the poverty line found that even among 2-year-olds, children from poor households do worse on average in language skills such as listening comprehension, letter recognition and expressive vocabulary. Poor children tend to score lower on standardized achievement tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and to have lower scores on the critical reading section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). These inequalities persist through the college years: looking at children born between 1979 and 1982, more than half (54 percent) of those from families in the highest income quartile graduated from college, versus only 9 percent from the lowest income quartile.

Nevertheless, as the article by the Economic Policy Institute says,

At all points in the social class distribution, U.S. students perform worse, and in many cases substantially worse, than students in a group of top-scoring countries (Canada, Finland, and Korea). Although controlling for social class distribution would narrow the difference in average scores between these countries and the United States, it would not eliminate it.

But guess what? The problem isn’t public schools. The countries that outperform America in education (Finland, South Korea, Canada, Japan, and Singapore) have public schools. See Public schools win internationally.

The same conclusion appears in the Time article Why Are the Rich So Interested in Public-School Reform? by Judith Warner:

Striking a serious blow to the contention that it’s bad teaching — not bad luck in life — that makes some American students perform much worse than others (and all of them much worse than students in other countries), Ravitch noted that on a recent international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, “American schools in which fewer than 10% of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan and Korea. Even when as many as 25% of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of U.S. schools drop.”

David Sirota, in Teachers Were Never The Problem, writes, “Social science research over the last few decades has shown that two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors – and among the most powerful of those is economic status.”

Finally, Mel Riddile wrote PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid, detailing that when PISA scores were adjusted by poverty the U.S. actually excelled.

The real reason conservatives attack public education isn’t too hard to fathom: they want to privatize education, so they can reap profits for corporations at the expense of the taxpayer, much as they benefit from defense spending and from government-mandated private insurance. The Nov 19, 2012 edition of Forbes has a cover story: “The $1 Trillion Opportunity: No field operates more inefficiently than education. A new breed of disruptors is finally going to fix it. Here’s how to join them.”

Conservatives are promoting charter schools, despite the lack of evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools and despite questions about whether they’re even constitutional in Washington State. Conservative lawmakers in Washington State haven’t granted cost of living adjustments to public teachers for several years now.

See also:

Why ALEC Fabricated Public School Failures (and Why We’re Not Surprised)

8 Ways Privatization Has Failed America

How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance “A childhood spent in poverty often sets the stage for a lifetime of setbacks.”


Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?: The Unaddressed Link between Poverty and Education

More Money, Better Grades

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty

Public Schools Win Internationally

Charter Schools are Cheating Your Kids: Report Reveals Massive Fraud, Mismanagement, Abuse

PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid’ shows a strong correlation between poverty and test scores. If you omit test scores for poor US districts from international comparisons, the US compares quite well internationally.

What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance? (long analysis)