Jan 16 2013
05:24 pm

Since the Reagan administration and the publication of A Nation at Risk, American education has been haunted by the spectre of failure in international comparisons. It has always been the case that the US was never really 'failing' in that our scores on international assessments like PISA and TIMMS have always been average. However, the dirty little secret is that once you take social class into consideration (as in the US tolerates a much higher level of poverty than do our peer nations) the US education system performs quite well. It's long been a topic of conversation among the minority of folks in the education business opposed to current trends, but it is now starting to leak out to the echo chamber of think tanks running the ship of state these days. Money quote:

If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the United States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and average math scores in the United States would be about the same as average math scores in similar post-industrial countries...

This re-estimate would also improve the U.S. place in the international ranking of all OECD countries, bringing the U.S. average score to fourth in reading and 10th in math. Conventional ranking reports based on PISA, which make no adjustments for social class composition or for sampling errors, and which rank countries irrespective of whether score differences are large enough to be meaningful, report that the U.S. average score is 14th in reading and 25th in math.

Rachel's picture

Brings to mind Ann Coulter

Brings to mind Ann Coulter saying the other day that if you just looked at the U.S. murder rate among Caucasions, we're the same as Belgium.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Thanks so much, Stick.

I've been trying to share widely this somewhat pithier column on the same subject (It's Poverty, Not Stupid) and which also examines 2009 PISA data in that same manner.

We immediatlely see its author's point at the top of page 2, here:

Schools with <10% Free and Reduced Meals, PISA score 551

10-24.9%, PISA score 527

25-49.9%, PISA score 502

50-74.9%, PISA score 471

>75%, PISA score 446

U.S. average PISA score 500

OECD average PISA score 493

The report goes on to compare just like populations among countries, as in comparing scores for U. S. students in which the Free and Reduced Lunch population runs 10-24.9% against countries in which student poverty runs that same rate.


Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.

In the next category (10-24.9%) the U. S. average of 527 placed first out of ten comparable nations.

For the remaining U. S. schools, their poverty rates over 25% far exceed any other country tested. However, when the U. S. average of 502 for poverty rates between 25-49.9% is compared with other countries it is stil in the upper half of scores.

It's a quick, eyeopening read that begs the quesiton: Why are the people who are FOR dismantling our public schools the very same people who are AGAINST a living wage, the Affordable Healthcare Act, inclusionary housing standards, etc???

I think we know why.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Brings to mind Ann Coulter saying the other day that if you just looked at the U.S. murder rate among Caucasions, we're the same as Belgium.

Except that there are methods to reduce poverty, while there are not any (legal, ethical) methods to reduce non-Caucasions.

I really don't see any parallel.

Rachel's picture

It just seemed like the same

It just seemed like the same kind of thinking - "if you leave out THOSE people, then we're doing ok."

Stick's picture

Changing the topic from 'ZOMG

Changing the topic from 'ZOMG we're failing and the Chinese are coming!' to the topic of social class is the point of this exercise. Again, our scores are low because we tolerate high rates of poverty. Full stop. That is where a productive conversation will begin. The discourse of 'failure' is a thirty year old marketing campaign.

Fabricant's picture

I wholeheartedly agree

I wholeheartedly agree inequality is the underlying issue but I don't think there is anything wrong with Rachel's comparison. Race and class are highly correlated. Coulter could have certainly blamed poverty for the skewed homicide rates. But, obviously, that is an issue Coulter does not wish to address--easier to blame a racial group for inherent defects than confront the inherent flaws of the US economy, class structure, public policy etc. Or, maybe she's just spinning the fact that US mass murderers are almost always white males.

In any case, social class is mind-bogglingly underrated in social and political analysis.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Folks like Stick and me aren't suggesting "leaving out" anybody, though.

Just today, I nearly launched my long-running diatribe on the subject of mixed income housing as a means to bust up these too-many school communities where the Free and Reduced Lunch population exceeds 75%--but I worried that people's eyes would glaze over if I started up again.

I think so-called "failing schools" are only symptoms of this root problem, poverty, and it rankles me that among all these "reformers" no one seems to give a shit what these kids' lives are like after 3:30 p.m. daily.

Remember, back in 2007, how that system wide rezoning of high schools "integrated" Knox County? From 8:30 to 3:30, I mean, with no thought for the rest of children's every day?

NOT a fix, I don't think.

Rachel's picture

Folks like Stick and me

Folks like Stick and me aren't suggesting "leaving out" anybody, though.

I most certainly did not mean to suggest that you were.

AnonymousOne's picture

If by no one, you're

If by no one, you're including the families of those children, then you would be correct.

I have seen generations with opportunities, and the benefits to take advantage of them, drop out of high school, thinking they would be taken care of. Which they will, at a minimum level.

Don't kid yourself that this is one-sided. There's a content-with-the-status-quo attitude much too prevalent...on both sides.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


I must be jumping back and forth between too many conversations, AO...

What's this reference to "no one" you say I made? I'm not spotting it above?

Tamara Shepherd's picture


I've tried to talk to Mike Edwards, face-to-face, about the kinds of housing ordinances we need in place here in Knox in order to better guide residential development and expand affordable housing county wide--which you know full well would reduce the incidence of all these 75% Free Lunch school populations.

He started shaking his head "no" before I got two sentences out.

I assure you, the only kind of "reforming" Edwards et al are interested in is the kind that can be done from the comfort of their suburban West End McMansions.

Edwards certainly doesn't care to live anywhere near THOSE people.

Sigh. I continue to think my friends in this SOS group have chosen some strange bedfellows in the Knox Area Chamber...

Tamara Shepherd's picture


In an effort to better explain my above assertion that we've misdiagnosed root causes for the ill that is "failing schools"...

I tried several times this morning to dig up Richard Kahlenberg's Housing Policy is School Policy (Century Foundation), but kept getting "page not found" errors.

Anybody can manage to pull that up, please share. It would be very helpful to continuing this conversation.

R. Neal's picture

Is this it? (link...)

Is this it?


Tamara Shepherd's picture


It is, thanks!

I see this one was Schwartz's work, tho, not Kahlenberg's (he's w/ Century Foundation, too).

Please read it through. It's all the stuff we need to do locally to improve our schools, but that the Knox Area Chamber adamently opposes.

Mike Edwards' stomach is churning that it's even linked here...

Tamara Shepherd's picture

This to Rachel (and other of my friends in LWV):

By the way, inclusionary housing ordinances of this sort have been advanced to the benefit of schools by locales' League of Women Voters chapters in several cities, already.

Fairfield, VA outside D.C. is one area that comes to mind.

There was some city somewhere, I read, that adopted such ordinances only after SIX local LWV members were elected to its council simultaneously.

I sure wish our local LWV would end its tryst with the Chamber and propose addressing our "failing schools" problem this same way.

I'd be in with both feet.

OneAnonymous's picture

Inclusionary zoning programs

Inclusionary zoning programs certainly seem like a good idea but they are not politically viable here. No way affluent Knoxvillians will voluntarily open up their neighborhoods. Federal enforcement would be required. Even then, there would be staunch opposition that would likely limit the amount of integration. Even in Montgomery County, the number is low. Only 700 out of 360,000 households really benefit educationally from the zoning program. It's a nice idea but not a problem solver.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Let's not kid ourselves: Virtue is seldom sufficient temptation and inclusionary housing ordinances aren't "politically viable" anywhere.

They come into being following some sort of coup, as in that election I mentioned that landed six like-minded LWV members on a local council, all-at-one-time.

It's also true, if you read the study all the way through, that the resulting "neighborhood effect" from such ordinances appears to have less bearing on students' academic results than does the "school effect."

However, given that geography sometimes precludes us from achieving school integration at just every school via school rezoning--consider, for example, how ilttle impacted were the demographics at Bearden High, Farragut High, and HVA following our local rezoning of high schools in 2007--inclusionary housing ordinances can get that job done.

When we cause all school communities to recognize the moral imperative that exists to extend equal educational opportunity--which in our local scenario means causing Bearden High, Farragut High, and HVA to carry 50% Free and Reduced Lunch populations, too--then we'll see superior academic results for the aggregate.

And given that the West End is their enclave, we'll quickly reveal as shams the Chamber's reformers-from-afar, too, won't we?!

Madame DeFarge, here, is knitting names into her scarves...

OneAnonymous's picture

You are going to kill people

You are going to kill people that disagree with you?

I don't know why it was political viability to get 700 of 360,000 (.2%)households of Montgomery integrated into affluent neighborhoods, but it's a "drop in the bucket" as the author of the study, Heather Schwartz, admits herself.

Anyway, there is a lot more to getting these inclusionary zoning programs implemented than electing LWV members. A lot relies on the way zoning rules are set up. Where zoning is mostly determined by local municipalities, it is less viable. Where State and Federal agencies have more influence over zoning, the restructuring is more likely because they can trump the local elite.

The state of Tennessee is not going to step in and rezone here, the affluent aren't going to let it happen locally. The only way it gets implemented in Knoxville is through some sort of federal push, which isn't happening right now. So, I don't think it is politically viable here without certain conditions changing. The challenge is to figure out what we need to do to set up those conditions.

But even if the soil was ripe, inclusionary zoning does little to address the problem of the US class system that Stick was alluding to. Basically, its just a lottery for poorer households. Taking a small number of households from a certain class and placing them into the neighborhoods of the affluent class does little to alter the overall class structure or inequalities, which ultimately underly the problem. Again, it sounds nice but it has little effect on the real problems.

But comparing inclusionary housing to the lottery is a little deceiving. The state lottery does basically nothing to move people up the social ladder. It's just a regressive tax. Poor people paying tuition for white middle class students, who don't really know how to address the issue of social inequalities they are benefiting from in the form of tuition. Kinda of messed up, isn't it.

Knit away...

Tamara Shepherd's picture


No, I'm not going to "kill people." I made that reference to myself as a villian because, as you noted, inclusionary housing ordinances often “are not politically viable," and, as I noted, sometimes require some sort of coup to implement.

But where did you get that this program in Montgomery County, Maryland, serves "700 of 360,000 (.2%) households?" It encompasses 12,000 moderately priced homes and 992 apartments, per the study I linked? Even the sample of students participating in the study was 850? It's the largest such program in the nation.

As to how inclusionary housing ordinances come into being, I’m aware that they became required in New Jersey as a result of a State Supreme Court ruling. In Massachusetts, they came into being following passage of a state law. Most of them, though, have simply been passed by municipalities’ local legislative bodies, absent any outside instruction to do so.

There are today over 200 municipalities nationally that employ inclusionary housing ordinances.

And they absolutely do address the problem of the U. S. class system that Stick refers to. Low income households are more likely to become economically successful if they have middle class neighbors as peers and role models. Inclusionary housing policies also reduce concentrations of poverty in slum districts where social norms don’t provide role models.

So yeah, I’ll keep knitting.

(Agree with you about the lottery scholarship program. Voted against it—and had a sign opposing it on my front lawn. Worked really hard that year to get an income tax passed, though, especially to benefit schools.)

vernon's picture

I m 100 % in favor helping

I m 100 % in favor helping kids,but I am very skeptical of the idea that achievers can t achieve without living in a wealthy neighborhood and going to school with wealthier kids.I found this recent article that seems to say that even in the Maryland School district,the top ranked school system which you used as an example of what we should do, the free lunch kids remained at or even below the national testing averages,which seems to show that this program does nothing to shrink the poverty gap in scores,am I missing something here?


Tamara Shepherd's picture


What the Schwartz study of Montgomery County found was that inclusionary housing cut the achievement gap by half, Vernon, not that it closed it entirely.

I'll defer to Richard Kahlenberg (whom I'd misremembered as being the author of the MC study, but who was actually Heather Schwartz's supervisor on it) to comment on the particulars, here.

(Kahlenberg's comments, which appeared in WaPo opinion columnist Valerie Strauss' The Answer Sheet, make for a very quick read and answer your skepticism specifically. Do give the link just two minutes of your time?)

Fabricant's picture

So, I finally got around to

So, I finally got around to reading your links on inclusionary zoning. Sorry I botched your Madame Defarge reference but I’m glad we agree on the lottery and state income tax. I also agree that inclusionary zoning (and socioeconomic integration) is a fine policy for breaking through some boundaries of exclusion and providing some affordable housing. But it is not an adequate policy for addressing US inequality-that would be revolutionary. As it stands, IZ is simply a band aid on cancer.

As for the 700 households, that came from Schwartz’s study itself. She only examined the 700 public housing units in Montgomery nested within the inclusionary zoning program. The point of referencing that number was not to say her findings are disputable but that IZ is limited in its reach. There is no way to presume you could integrate a majority of America’s poor into affluent neighborhoods or bring enough moderately affluent people into lower income ones.

Of the 200 municipalities that have passed some form of inclusionary zoning, over a hundred are in California. But to be fair, of the five projects in the South, Tennessee is home to two, Memphis and Nashville. But given Tennessee’s levels of poverty and academic performance, I’d say this isn’t a ringing endorsement.

But IZ is not a tool to address the every growing mass of inequalities nor was it ever meant to be. The rise of the middle class in the fifties and sixties did not occur because of mixed zoning but because of a combination of a unique geo-political context, high taxes, business regulation and a more equitable sharing of corporate profits. IZ is an insufficient response to these declining conditions. It was first implemented around thirty years ago, yet the scale of inequalities has been rapidly growing since. And moving 1 to 5% of the poor into rich neighborhoods basically does nothing to alter this overall trend. It simply masks it.

That said, I support inclusionary zoning but we don’t need to overstate its accomplishments or potential. The main problem with socioeconomic integration is that it does nothing to alter the overall functioning of an economy that relies on and reproduces inequality—a finance economy that is tanking, eroding the middle class and widening the gap between the rich and poor, overworking the employed and continuously chopping away at benefits, entitlements and most forms of progressive taxation, while rendering more and more workers obsolete.

Humans cannot out knit machines.

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