Education: Low Income and Ethnicity Matter, But So Does Something Else

Kevin Drum makes a good point about U.S. educational performance (boldface mine):

Instead, let’s just make the more accurate claim: If you compare America’s white kids to those of most other countries—aggregating all the evidence, not just one or two data points—they do pretty well. Not spectacularly well, but pretty well. I think a fair observer would conclude that these kids were getting a pretty good education. Probably as good or better than most other countries in the world.

And that claim, even though it’s more modest, is important. It means that American education isn’t, either philosophically or foundationally, a disaster area. Nor is it in decline. For most American children, it works fine and it doesn’t need radical changes. Rather, there’s a small subset of American children who have been badly treated for centuries and continue to suffer from this. We do a lousy job of educating them, but it’s not because we don’t know how to educate. We’ve just never been willing to expend the (very substantial) effort it would take to help them catch up.

Anyone who disagrees with this conclusion is welcome to argue about it. But I think it’s one of the paramount facts about education in America. If you ignore it, your diagnosis of our educational problems is almost certain to be badly wrong.

I agree with Drum, but I would add one other factor that almost always goes ignored: the state-to-state variation. When you disaggregate the NAEP data, some states routinely do well, either with certain groups (there are a subset of states that do very well with educated whites, and a handful of states that do well with minorities, though a racial gap exists in those states too), or that do well across the board, such as Massachusetts. The extremes of this state-to-state variation are on a par with the effects of race, and the median difference between high and average performers is comparable to income effects (seriously, go the NAEP data and poke around).

Yet no one talks about the effects of states on educational outcomes. Mind you, some or most of these differences might not involve the educational systems per se: maybe Gov. Dukakis was onto something when he cleaned up Boston Harbor. Child welfare affect child development. But until we recognize that states have different outcomes, to use Drum’s phrase, our “diagnosis of our educational problems is almost certain to be badly wrong.”

Maybe all the trips to Finland are a distraction?

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1 Response to Education: Low Income and Ethnicity Matter, But So Does Something Else

  1. dr2chase says:

    What if it’s the Massachusetts lead laws? (since you mention Kevin Drum).

    I do so loathe the status quo shell game that so many conservatives seem to play. X is not the problem, it’s really Y, no sense working on X, the effort would be wasted. Y is not the problem, it’s really X, no sense working on Y, the effort would be wasted.

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