America’s Schools: Do We Have A Problem?

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Note to Brilliant readers: The letter below was published in the New York Times Book Review this weekend; it refers to the review I wrote for the Times about Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids In The World. Please give it, and my comment that follows it, a read, and share your thoughts in the comment section.—Annie

To the Editor:

Amanda Ripley’s book and Annie Murphy Paul’s review both shortchange the American education system. Paul speaks of “American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school.” But that 25 percent is vastly disproportionately Latino and African-American.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.), in 2009 the United States ranked 25th in math and 21st in science of 34 O.E.C.D. countries. However, when the American students in science were disaggregated by white, Asian, Latino and black by PISA in 2006, whites and Asians ranked seventh in the world, behind Finland, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands — but ahead of South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Studying the Finns makes sense, but focusing attention on the groups that are behind should be a much higher priority.

Vineyard Haven, Mass.
The writer is a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and the author of “Jews, Confucians and Protestants: Cultural Capital and the End of Multiculturalism.”

I’m puzzled by the sentiments expressed in this letter. Mr. Harrison almost seems to suggest that Latino and African-American students aren’t really American students—that if we parcel them out of our analyses and count only white and Asian students, the American education system is actually doing just fine (“ahead of South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway”).

Mr. Harrison also seems to suggest that “studying the Finns”—i.e., investigating what has allowed Finland’s education system to turn out such well-prepared graduates—is somehow different from, or even antithetical to, “focusing attention on the groups that are behind” in our own country. To the contrary: The prescription that  Ms. Ripley extracts from her examination of Finland, South Korea, and Poland (well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors) would, the evidence suggests, benefit all students, of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Ms. Ripley and I are not “shortchang[ing] the American education system, as Mr. Harrison states. Rather, it is the American education system—and by extension, all of American society—that is shortchanging our most vulnerable students. If our schools aren’t working for them, then our schools aren’t working. 

Readers, what are your thoughts?

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7 Responses to “America’s Schools: Do We Have A Problem?”

  1. In fact, the correct comparison is to look at the scholastic attainments of Europeans, Hispanics and African in different countries and different educational systems, to look at the race by educational system analysis of variance. Versions of those comparisons can be found in the Special Issue on the Flynn Effect in the Journal Intelligence. http://www.sciencedirect.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S016028961300086X

  2. Alan miller says:

    This is a very complicated subject and worthy of discussion. I imagine seeing the statistics in the US divided out by class would yield similar results and be far less inflammatory. The question then becomes what to do with the information. There is certainly an argument to be made that the part of our system that is very similar to the Finns (affluent, stable, homogeneous communities) is working just fine. The question therefore is how to create a system that works in our most disadvantaged communities. These communities are increasingly being left behind. There is, to a great extent, a lack of hope in the most disadvantaged communities. Looking at education apart from the environment that surrounds it is, in my opinion, a mistake. Paul tough’s book on this subject is amazing as was an NPR program (this American life) on a low income Chicago public school.

    All of these communities are made up of Americans and if the affluent leave the poor behind it will be to everyone’s detriment. That said, solutions to the problem are not as simple as better teachers or more testing. I applaud the discussion and hope that something can be done to improve the outcomes for these communities.

  3. Ron Boyd says:

    The premise of Ms. Ripley’s book is faulty: it supposes that we must look to other countries to figure out how to better educate our students because that is where “the smartest kids in the world” are–as if none of the public schools in the United States are producing such smart kids…

    Her faulty premise stems from a misreading of and an over-reliance on the validity of International test score comparisons–PISA, TIMMS, etc

    Of course we could and should learn from good schools and education programs in other countries, but they could learn a lot from our best public schools, too.

    Ms. Ripley’s reporting over the years–since her propaganda piece in Time magazine that painted Michele Rhee as the tough talking prophet who could “save” our public schools–has been part of a broader effort to cast public education in America as a monolithic institution that is in such disarray that it must be completely scrapped and reinvented.

    You, Ms. Ripley, and your readers would benefit from reading this report that went largely unnoticed because it does not fit the prevailing narrative in ed reform reporting.


    And someone like Mr. Rothstein–one of the authors of the report– should have reviewed Ms. Ripley’s book as the fact that you and Ms. Ripley are both fellows at the New America Foundation should have disqualified you from being the reviewer of her work.

  4. Chris Parsons says:

    Assuming that we go along with playing the game of comparing a racial and cultural subset of the American people with the ‘rest of the world’, then we should realise that other countries listed in the Pisa list also have a mixed culture, and the same process could be used to refine their scores as well. In the UK for example there is a highly diverse racial pupulation, with a high level of imigration. The same sort of game could easily be played, but to what end? To try to prove a cultural or racial supremacy theory? More likely to point to a socio-economic/first language link.

  5. Al Meyers says:


    You penned a very appropriate response. Mr. Harrison’s comments are disturbing on several levels. Is he inferring that Finland is advantaged because they are a homogenous culture? Is he subjugating African-Americans and Latinos to sub-citizen status? Just because we are a multicultural society doesn’t mean that our education system shouldn’t offer ALL students, regardless of race, a quality education. In fact, I would point Mr. Harrison to Frans Johansson’s book entitled “The Medici Effect.” Diversity is where the real breakthrough innovation comes from!


  6. Paul Muench says:

    How do we motivate ourselves to address achievement gaps? Is this question mostly about lack of know-how? I have never heard anyone say that Finland educates children for 1/2 the cost of american public education with better results. But if that is the case then the know-how would be critical. If not, then what’s the best way to address the motivational issues? Is comparing ourselves with other countries the best way to motivate the powers-that-be to engage in solving achievement gaps? I would guess it could help propel someone that is already motivated, but not someone who is fine with the status quo.

  7. Luke Bang says:

    To put it simply, the entirety of Harrison’s argument was:

    1. International test scores collect/aggregate data to represent students from ALL socioeconomic levels.
    2. Different socioeconomic levels tend to score differently.
    3. The U.S. has a wide variety of socioeconomic levels, and the ones that tend to do worse at disproportionately of lower socioeconomic levels.
    4. Finland has a mostly homogeneous and affluent population, as opposed to the U.S.’s population (which is, as you know, extremely varied).
    5. If we filter out the lower socioeconomic factor from the U.S. aggregate score, the U.S. doesn’t fare too badly at all.

    Perhaps our variable (education system) isn’t as huge of a cause, but rather much more of a correlate (n.). It may still be a contributor, but the fact that we were ahead of South Korea (which is a HUGELY homogeneous society, mind you) when we “leveled the playing field”, so to speak, is convincing support for the argument that our education isn’t as much to blame as they say it is.

    (Further) Conclusion:
    So we can stretch it (a little bit) and say that the factor we REALLY need to focus on is reaching the low end of the socioeconomic scale. It must have a much bigger impact than copying the Finnish education system, because we’ve shown that the education systems don’t perform TOO differently (although 1st and 7th seems far apart, it’s a lot better than what happens before you make it fair). Of course, this argument should also be taken with a grain of salt, because we know that there may be even MORE variables we haven’t accounted for (culture, population, blah).
    But basically, it’s just supposed to show that the reasoning for “the system is to be mostly blamed” is obviously NOT supported by these test scores.

    So yeah, this is basic statistics. Basic scientific method. Something about testing only one variable at a time, or was it something about how only a controlled experiment can determine true causation?

    Anyways, just thought I would clarify Harrison’s response. My “clarification” MAY seem a little bit construed, but I’m fairly certain that’s what Harrison was going for, it’s just that he had to keep it concise and left a lot of things unsaid, and therefore, lightly implied.

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