America in black and white

Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post delves into murky territory this week, writing
about the recent “Sputnik
” occasioned by the release of the 2009 PISA results. To demonstrate
that America’s schools are performing better than commonly believed, he digs
into the Department of Education’s “Highlights
from PISA 2009
” report, which presents scores disaggregated by race. Lo and
behold, white Americans, with an average score of 525, are on par with
homogeneously white countries, like Canada (524), New Zealand (521), and
Australia (515). The story is the same for Asian Americans (clocking in with an
average 541), who scored about even with South Korea, and ahead of Hong Kong
(533) and Japan. (Yes, Shanghai still blows them out of the water.) It’s a crude
approach, admits Samuelson, “but it suggests that U.S. schools do about as well
as the best systems elsewhere in educating similar students.” Our real
challenge, argues the economist, is our social system, which allows for vast
inequalities which explain the terrible performance of our poor, black, and
Hispanic students. Of course he’s right—to a point. There’s no doubt that test
scores correlate with socio-economic status and race, but schools are hardly
impotent in changing that equation. As Kevin Huffman writes, “within this
country, entire districts and states are dramatically outperforming their
counterparts in educating similar children” (think Texas compared to
California). Yes, Mr. Samuelson, we need to work toward a more just society—and
better schools are the best hope we’ve got for doing exactly that.

To Foster High-Achievers, Think Beyond the Classroom,” by Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post, January 10, 2011.

Reconciliation in the School-Reform War,” by Kevin Huffman, Washington Post, January 10, 2011.