Americans Still Underperforming. That’s Probably Due to Inequality.

Why is American education achievement so low? For years pundits have bemoaned the fact that, in the words of Richard Perez-Pena at the New York Times:

American adults lag well behind their counterparts in most other developed countries in the mathematical and technical skills needed for a modern workplace, according to… [The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)]

The study, perhaps the most detailed of its kind, shows that the well-documented pattern of several other countries surging past the United States in students’ test scores and young people’s college graduation rates corresponds to a skills gap, extending far beyond school. In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

Oh why, oh why, is this the case? It probably has a lot to do with poverty and inequality in America.

Observers do a lot to try to avoid discussing this. Indeed, education pundits often seem to propose many other reasons for low education performance.

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it, in reaction the same study: “These findings should concern us all. They show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.”

This was a comment about a study released last week, but it highlights something about which pundits have complained for more than 30 years. In 1983 A Nation at Risk, a report commissioned by Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, revealed that:

On 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than… when Sputnik was launched.

And if we failed to address such problems we would lose “our slim competitive edge” in global influence.

But why is this? Are our schools just really bad? Is our education system dramatically worse than those of all other industrialized nations?

Perhaps. But the problem in using education systems, exclusively, to address education performance is that other high-performing industrialized have very different education systems.

So why are Americans so dumb? Well, as Sadhbh Walshe writes at The Guardian, it’s really pretty simple:

Just a quick scan of the countries that fared really well in all three categories (Norway, Sweden, Japan, Finland and the Netherlands) compared to the countries that fared really badly (America and Britain) gives a pretty good indication that the inequality that is rampant in the (allegedly) dumber nations might have something to do with their pitifully low scores. A closer look at the results is also revealing. The incomes of Americans who scored the highest on literacy tests are on average 60% higher than the incomes of Americans with the lowest literacy scores, who were also twice as likely to be unemployed. So broadly speaking, the better off the American, the better they did on the tests.

And let me go one step further and suggest that the apparent acceleration of America’s dumbing down might be directly connected with the country’s rising poverty rates.

Walshe admits that her case isn’t airtight. Indeed, education performance doesn’t always track income directly, but there’s probably something here. How many more different education reforms do we have to try, and find wanting, before we figure out it might be time to address inequality?

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer