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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

SD, US Not Producing Enough Smart Kids

My well-read wife hands me this report from The Atlantic that includes data on how South Dakota students compare with their U.S. and international counterparts in posting high scores on standardized tests.

The good news: South Dakota has more kids scoring at advanced levels in math and science than the national average. We're 14th overall among the states for advanced math scores.

The bad news: we're getting beat by socialist states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, which are #1 and #2 with 11.4% and 10.8% (respectively) of their kids getting advanced math scores, compared to South Dakota's 6.5%. Our kids are also below average in really good reading, with only 1.9% of our kids getting advanced reading scores, compared to the national average of 3%.

The really bad news: The U.S. is getting creamed by other countries. Thirty countries have a higher percentage of kids getting advanced math scores than ours, including Ireland, Poland, Luxembourg, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, China, Korea, China, and top-dog Taiwan, where 28% of kids score "advanced" in math.

Oh, but this comparison isn't fair. Taiwan and Poland and all those other countries only test the best kids. They don't have all the ethnic diversity that we do to pull down their scores. Or at least those are the excuses we usually hear. But the folks behind these numbers, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and his fellow researchers, have already controlled for those excuses and found the U.S. is still underperforming.

Hanushek has long rejected the idea that more money produces better education, and his latest data upholds that notion. According to The Atlantic, the U.S. spends more per student than everyone but Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway. Whatever we're spending our money on (culinary arts programs? new gyms?), we're not getting the academic outcomes we need to compete with the new workers from other countries.

Among the recommendations for better outcomes: more rigorous teacher training and testing. According to The Atlantic, Massachusetts's gains coincide with imposition of a basic teacher literacy test that weeded out over a third of new teachers in its first year. Massachusetts also requires students to pass an exam to graduate high school. (And please, spare me the hand-wringing over "test anxiety." Life is a test. If you can't handle marking a few bubbles with a Number 2 pencil, how will you handle freeway driving? or parenting?)

The U.S. is a world leader in many ways. Alas, our K-12 education system is not.

Update 17:28 CST: Read more straight from the profs: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, "Teaching Math to the Talented," Education next, Winter 2011. That article includes everyone's favorite Web widget, an interactive map!


  1. Spending more money may not be the fix-all, but in South Dakota, I think there's a good case to be made that funding is at least part of the problem. If you look at some of the issues highlighted in the school funding lawsuit, lack of funds is clearly causing situations that interfere with learning.

    I'm also a little leery of anything that suggests our educational system could be fixed if teachers were somehow "better."

  2. I'm similarly torn, Kelsey. hanushek says money doesn't correlate with outcomes... but it still take smoney to make programs happen. We don't have French and Chinese language programs because we aren't willing to pay the money to add that staff.

    Making better teachers: indeed, a basic literacy test would be an insult to a lot of the great teachers I know. At the same time, we can point to districts that hire football and basketball coaches who also happen to have a degree in history or some other field where we can use a teacher. How do we get an honest assessment of teacher quality? Do the Master of Education programs really improve teaching outcomes?

  3. And with intellectual giants like Sarah Palin and Kristi Noem held up as exemples of leadership, what is there for a kid to aspire to?

  4. I'd be interested for someone to pull out a study which controls:

    1) Parental support for educational objectives, and / or

    2) Societal (or cultural subgroup) attitudes towards education

    This is America, where we glorify big football hits, fast cars, and 15 miutes of fame -- not Millenium Prize Problems and intelligent conversation (witness the rise of Sarah Palin, reality TV hero).

  5. You can spend as much money as you want on education but the outcomes won't improve if the students don't value education.

    Every successful student values education. Sometimes that value is intrinsic to the student and in other cases it's a matter of parental discipline.

    To increase achievement you have to convince the individual to value education. Every successful teacher that I know instills the value of education into their students.

    However, that doesn't seem to be a goal of the education industry. It seem to just throw knowledge at the students and hope it sticks. You need to get to kids early, like 2-5 and play learning games. Make the kids associate winning games with accomplishment and then turn the games into learning.

  6. Check Massachusett's and Minesota's cost per pupil and test scores against South Dakota's if you think money doesn't matter.

  7. Check Washington, DC, and the reservations cost per pupil vs test scores if you think more money does matter!

  8. It's not just programs -- there are schools in SD that don't even have potable water.

    I think Phil hit the nail right on the head. While there are teachers that are hired more for their coaching ability than teaching skills, the one teacher a student sees 5 hours a week for one year during their educational lifetime probably isn't going to make a huge difference in their test scores. Overcoming a homelife that may be filled with alcohol or absent parents, or a family that doesn't value education or set expectations for their children, or parents who blame teachers for their children's laziness -- those are going to be way bigger influences on kids who might be struggling. And the kids that aren't struggling will generally do fine no matter what.


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