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Topic: US 'in denial' over poor maths standards
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
US 'in denial' over poor maths standards
Posted: May 28, 2014 8:52 AM
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From The BBC News Business, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. See
US 'in denial' over poor maths standards

By Sean Coughlan [BBC News education correspondent]

The maths skills of teenagers in parts of the deep south of the
United States are worse than in countries such as Turkey and barely
above countries such as Chile and Mexico.

An international study of maths ability in the US shows how
individual states would have performed if they were ranked against
other countries, using the OECD's Pisa results as a benchmark.

The study also shows that privileged youngsters in the US, with
highly-educated parents, are lagging behind similar youngsters in
other developed countries. [See ]

This analysis, from academics at Harvard and Stanford in the US and
Munich University in Germany, punctures the idea that middle-class US
pupils are high achievers.

Southern states Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are among the
weakest performers, with results similar to developing countries such
as Kazakhstan and Thailand.

West Virginia is also among the group of lowest performers, where
maths levels are far below western European countries or
high-performing Asian education systems in South Korea or Singapore.

The US has been a mediocre performer in international education
tests, based on average performance across the country, but this
study shows how this average conceals a remarkably wide range of
successes and failures.

Northern lights

There is a band of high achieving states across the north of the US,
where maths results would be as good as many successful European and
Asian countries.

If Massachusetts had been considered as a separate entity it would
have been the seventh best at maths in the world.

Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey and Montana are all high performers.

But there is a long tail of underachievement that dips well below the
levels of secondary school pupils in wealthier western European
countries. It dips into levels closer to the developing world.

New York and California are similar in ability to countries such as
Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, well below the averages for the US and
OECD industrialised countries.

There are 23 US states which would be ranked below 30th place in an
international ranking of 34 OECD countries at maths.

The study also overturns the idea that middle-class children in the
US are as good as their international counterparts.

It shows that in the US, as in other countries, children from better
educated, wealthier families will achieve better results than poorer

Among children of parents with a low level of education, only 17%
were proficient in maths, compared with 43% of children from
well-educated families.

Falling behind

But this standard of maths among well-educated families in US is well
below their counterparts in other countries.

In Poland, 71% of children from well-educated families were likely to
be proficient in maths. In Germany, 64% of better-off children were
proficient at maths and 55% in France.

Even such a poor performance was unlikely to set off alarm bells,
said Paul Peterson, report co-author and professor of government at
Harvard University and director of the Program on Education Policy
and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.

"There is a denial phenomenon," says Prof Peterson.

He said the tendency to make internal comparisons between different
groups within the US had shielded the country from recognising how
much they are being overtaken by international rivals.

"The American public has been trained to think about white versus
minority, urban versus suburban, rich versus poor," he said.

The outcome was a misleading sense of complacency about middle-class
education, which always appeared to be ahead, he said.

Report authors, Prof Peterson, Eric Hanushek at Stanford University
and Ludger Woessmann at the University of Munich, wrote in Education
Next magazine: "Lacking good information, it has been easy even for
sophisticated Americans to be seduced by apologists who would have
the public believe the problems are simply those of poor kids in
central city schools. "

"Our results point in quite the opposite direction."

California down

The underachievement in some southern states was a reflection of
deep-rooted historical divides and disadvantages, Prof Peterson said,
such as slavery and segregation.

But the study raises questions about how other southern states can
buck the trend, such as Texas.

Among the children of poorly educated families, Texas is a
spectacularly strong performer, equivalent to sixth place in the OECD
rankings, just behind Finland.

California raised another set of negative questions, said Prof
Peterson, with a very low performance.

"California was historically thought to have a good education system,
but it's plunged since the 1970s," he said.

It has an economy big enough to match many OECD countries, but in
education comparisons it would be a lightweight, its maths
performance weaker than in almost any other industrialised country.

"It's where the rubber hits the road," said Prof Peterson.

There were long-term implications from all this, he said. Industries
were concentrating around areas with successful education systems.
And success in education was linked to healthier and wealthier lives
for individuals.

Rebecca Winthrop, director for the Center for Universal Education at
the Brookings Institution, said the findings would "raise eyebrows".
In particular, she thought it would be a wake-up call for
well-educated parents who thought that worries about education were a
problem for "other people's children".

But she said it was important to remember the great size of the
country - and that even getting down to state level there were still
huge underlying disparities and inequalities.

"California is in itself a huge place," she said. And any aggregate
results are going to hide the gulf between schools serving the
Silicon Valley super rich and the migrant poor.

Andreas Schleicher, responsible for the OECD's Pisa tests, said this
study was a challenge to middle-class households who thought that
debates about school standards did not apply to them.

"The general perception has typically been that this is mainly a
concern around poor schools in poor neighbourhoods and so
middle-class families have often not been particularly engaged in
this," he said.

In the short term, he said, the US economy would be insulated against
this underachievement because it still had a "strong skill base,
simply because it was the first economy investing in universal
education in the 1960s, and those people still make up a large part
of the workforce".

But this legacy would not last forever.

"As time goes by, skill gaps will become increasingly apparent," he said.

The report authors conclude that as well as focusing on the gap
between rich and poor, the US needs to pay more attention to the rear
lights of their international rivals as they race away ahead of them.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: There is a complacency about mainstream US education
standards, says study
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Paul Peterson -- There is a denial phenomenon. Paul
E Peterson Professor of government at Harvard University
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Massachusetts state capitol Massachusetts has high
results by international standards
Maths standards

How US states would compare with OECD member states in maths tests

1. South Korea
2. Japan
3. Switzerland
4. Netherlands
5. Finland
6. Estonia
7. Canada
8. Belgium
9. Germany
10. Poland
New Jersey
11. Austria
12 Australia
13. Czech Republic
14. Ireland
New Hampshire
15. New Zealand
16. Slovenia
17. Denmark
North Dakota
18. France
South Dakota
19. United Kingdom
20. Iceland
21. Luxembourg
22. Norway
23. Portugal
24. Italy
25. Slovak Republic
North Carolina
26. Spain
27. United States
28. Sweden
Rhode Island
29. Israel
30. Hungary
South Carolina
New York
31. Greece
New Mexico
32. Turkey
West Virginia
33. Chile
34. Mexico
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Lost direction: Rusting emergency vehicle used in the
1970 protests at Jackson State College, Mississippi

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