So I lifted the title of this post from the very nice piece over at Education Next. Recommended reading if you have a few minutes. If you have a few more minutes, you might want to go through the longer, but equally readable, version at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Let me share the authors’ main point, and then raise a political question.
As you know, the U.S. ranks a solid “mediocre” in educational outcomes when compared to other industrialized countries. One response has been that the U.S. does well at the top of the social pecking order, just not so well at the bottom. And that we have a lot more people at the bottom of the pecking order than do other countries. I’m not sure I find this very reassuring. Still, the argument is that the usual comparisons aren’t “apples-to-apples.”
Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann blow away this line of reasoning by controlling for parents’ education, and then redoing the comparisons. In their chart, copied below, the authors look only at kids from families with at least one college-educated parent. These are more-or-less reasonably comparable groups across advanced countries.
In every country whose bar sticks out past the red (U.S.) line, kids from well-educated families beat kids from well-educated American families. Small differences across countries should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But our kids from well-educated families coming in 28th?
Now for my political question. While kids from low-education families are the ones who perform really poorly in American schools, those families don’t have a whole lot of political clout. But why aren’t well-educated families raising havoc?
Here’s my theory (just theory, no direct evidence.) The authors define “highly educated” as a family with at least one college-educated parent. My rough calculations (I looked at a dataset called NLSY97) suggest that’s about the top third of the family education distribution. Both parent college-educated families make up something like 15 percent of households. Maybe in today’s America to find political clout in you need to look at the top 15/10/1? percent. Maybe for the very few, education compares a lot better than for the hoi polloi.