Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

High achieving math students

Here’s breaking news on a study of high achieving math students. The bad news: America doesn’t stack up well to the competition.

Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann released a new study late yesterday that does something a little unusual. Most research focuses on average student performance. After all, that’s the single number that best describes overall educational accomplishment. The something unusual is that the Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann put together numbers on the percentage of students rated as highly accomplished in mathematics. These are the young people most likely to lead the way in science and technology in the future. The bad news…the very bad news…Americans were beat by 30 of the 56 countries tested. In fact, 15 countries had twice the fraction of high accomplished students as did the U.S.

One excuse you’ll hear for this sort of educational failure is that America is more “heterogeneous.” I’ve never really understood that argument. In any event, the authors cleverly followed up the overall bad news with numbers restricted to American students who had at least one parent with a college degree–a reasonable indicator of a family background conducive to education. Then they compared this sample to students regardless of parental education in other countries. By this measure, the U.S. is only beat by 16 countries.

Interestingly, there is a huge variation across states in the fraction of highly accomplished students ranging from 11.4 percent in Massachusetts down to 1.3 percent in Mississippi.  Only 16 countries outperform Massachusetts. 42 beat Mississippi.

In the authors’ own, depressing words:

In short, the percentages of high-achieving math students in the U.S.—and most of its individual states—are shockingly below those of many of the world’s leading industrialized nations. Results for many states are at the level of developing countries.

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2 Responses to High achieving math students

  1. SJL says:

    I agree with MS about the meaning of “heterogeneous”. In this context, the performance of countries with a very high proportion of foreign-born, such as Australia (26%) and Canada (about 20%) is interesting.

    Back to your key point–we know that the typical elementary teacher in the United States is unqualified to teach math.

  2. MS says:

    Come on, you know what “heterogenous” is code for.

    And this report is extremely upfront in saying that racial or socioeconomic diversity doesn’t explain this problem away. Even restricting the sample to white kids with at least one college educated parent, we still don’t stack up well relative to other countries.

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