Academic Excellence and the Mix of Students

Is American education in crisis? Are we falling behind our economic rivals in today's knowledge-driven world economy? According to the politicians and experts, the unequivocal answer is yes. Who could dispute the multiple international proficiency tests showing that American youngsters are in the middle of the pack in reading and math despite our out-spending nearly every other nation? (see here).

The predictable response to this alleged crisis is, naturally, to spend even more lavishly though we have long seen that fiscal extravagance fails to improve academic performance. This generosity is wonderful politics but its focus on average test scores misses an important reality -- averages often mislead. The truth is that America has lots of academically world-class students but we also have millions of chronic under-achievers. Politics probably explains why we overlook homegrown talent -- depressing test scores are convenient marching orders for spendthrift politicians hoping to keep the education gravy train rolling.  

To appreciate how an average can obscure huge variations in academic performance, just subdivide US test scores by race and ethnicity (for these data, see here). In the 2009 PISA reading scores for fifteen year olds from 65 nations and regions the average score is 500. The United States as a nation scored 500, a result hardly befitting a world power committed to educational excellence. The top scores come from Shanghai, China (556). But in second place are American students of Asian ancestry (541) who even out-perform students in Korea, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong.  In 7th place are US whites whose test scores exceed those in every European nation except Finland! Far down the ranking list are Hispanics (466) and near the bottom are US blacks (441). The 2007 TIMMS math results show nearly the identical pattern. Here in both 4th and 8th grade, US students of Asian ancestry cluster near the top together with Asians in Asia but close by are white Americans and further below are Hispanics and, near the bottom, American blacks.

These data only begin to tell part of the story, however. The educational landscape abounds with countless upbeat exceptions to this pattern.  Schools like KIPP (Know is Power Program), Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut among a handful of others have African American and Hispanic students who achieve impressive academic results (see here). This is scarcely new. Thomas Sowell's review of pre-civil rights movement of black education uncovers places like Washington DC's Dunbar High School that taught students Latin while sending graduates to elite schools where they performed as well as white classmates (Inside American Education, p. 96). Though speculative, international tests that treated minorities from such hard-nosed schools as a separate category would probably show quite different rankings of academic achievement.

Once we recognize that mediocre average test scores often "hide" millions of highly capable youngsters, it becomes apparent that there is no need to invest billions to push slackers into mediocrity.  In today's knowledge-based economy it's the quantity of smart people that counts, not smart people minus the less able.  Better yet, enroll more academically talented students, fewer youngsters who disdain learning

This is not as difficult as it might initially appear. Altering immigration policy would work wonders.  Like many other nations, America's immigration policy could favor smart people over the less smart, and unlike the current multi-billion dollar and largely ineffectual panaceas, this solution is dirt cheap.  Just screen potential immigrants by education level or administer a quick, inexpensive IQ-like test. A more politically palatable version might be tying immigration to our job needs with preference given to those with advanced education-related skills.

Those of us who attended school before the 1970s can scarcely imagine how immigration has altered school composition and it is this change, not insufficient spending, inept teachers and all the rest, that has precipitated our "crisis." Between 1972 and 2009, the number of Hispanic, especially Mexican, students in America's elementary schools has increased from 1.9 million to 6.7 million, even dominating enrollments in some school districts (for more on this transformation, see here). By contrast, the enrollment of white students during this period declined from 27.2 million to 18.2 million (blacks increased but not by much). Many of these new Hispanic arrivals, perhaps most, struggle with English, come from a culture where education is not venerated, and often live in poverty where parents frequently relocate in search of jobs. New York City schools now instruct some 15,000 recently arrived students from impoverished Third World nations, even places like Tibet, many of who lack any prior schooling, are illiterate, and must acquire the most rudimentary school related skills, e.g., learning how to ask a question. 

Calling attention to the negative impact of massive Hispanic immigration on test scores is not to condemn immigration per se. The issue of one of trade-off, and, conceivably the economic benefits of this influx out-weigh the downward educational impact.  What is important is that this trade-off be openly recognized for what it is -- a generous immigration policy, especially for Mexicans will be "paid for" with lower test scores.  Needless to say, broaching this relationship is exceedingly awkward -- few educational reformers will abandon their job-creating panaceas and admit that the surest (and far cheaper) path to academic excellence are tighter borders and altering who we let in.   

Though intellectual ability-driven immigration policy would uplift test scores is the good news; the bad news is that it would be quickly denounced as racist. Reality, however, is more complicated. Though race and ethnicity may currently be associated with academic achievement, this is not written in stone and, of the utmost importance, there are far too many exceptions to enact a race-based immigration policy. First and second generation blacks from the Caribbean and Africa are one conspicuous example. Like so many ambitious immigrants before them, they take full advantage of our educational opportunities. While these immigrants comprise only 13% of all blacks in the US, they comprise 27% of those African Americans at elite colleges (see here). Indeed, these immigrant blacks are proportionally more numerous than whites at selective colleges. One might also add that many English immigrants, specifically the "Border People" -- today's "Hillbillies" -- have for centuries done poorly in our schools.

But even if altering immigration is rejected as the path to academic excellence, acknowledging these international comparisons with American students sub-divided by race and ethnicity offers some sage advice to education reformers. Though Obama will probably never admit it, thanks to our white and Asian students plus those minorities from hard-nosed schools, the United States can hold its own against economic rivals in Asia and Europe. No need to panic or waste billions more. Put another (politically incorrect) way -- we are not a nation of mediocre students; we are nation of millions of very smart kids and a nation of many not-so-smart youngsters.

Equally important, these rankings obscure America's more general educational accomplishments. While it is customary to bemoan the lackluster performance of American blacks and Hispanics, international comparisons show that they have performed well in American schools vis-à-vis their compatriots elsewhere. Scores of American blacks, for example, far exceeded those of Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean nation with a large black population, while US Hispanics out-score those living in eight South American nations (sub-Sahara nations were not included in these international tests but US blacks would probably have out-scored these blacks). We should be congratulating ourselves, not chasing yet more budget-busting fantasies. Recall Voltaire's famous adage about the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.