Everyone’s child

The reflexive criticism to international comparisons that rank American schools as low-performing is that the United States has so many disadvantaged children.

So, researchers at the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance decided to isolate the performance of American students considered “advantaged” — those whose parents hold college degrees. The study, “Not Just the Problems of Other People’s Children: U.S. Student Performance in Global Perspective,” asked: Do students of the same family background do better in the United States than in other countries?

The answer was no.

“When viewed from a global perspective, U.S. schools seem to do as badly at teaching those from better-educated families as they do at teaching those from less-well-educated families. Higher levels of parental education lift student performance everywhere. Compared to their counterparts abroad, however, U.S. students from advantaged homes lag severely behind,” wrote researchers Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann.

For state-by-state data, the study used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For country-by-country data, it relied on the PISA tests. These tests are administered to representative samples of 15-year-olds in public and private schools in many national and regional jurisdictions, including all 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Georgia fared poorly in the international comparisons.

“Georgia is still ‘way down the list compared to other counties. If it was a country, Georgia would be ranked No. 32 out of the 34 countries in math and No. 30 in reading. That is disconcerting,” Peterson said in a telephone interview from Harvard.

“I don’t think your students are stupid; they can learn,” said Peterson. “You have to ask whether everything is being done to make sure teachers are qualified and have high enough expectations for your students.”

Author of “Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning,” Peterson said suburban parents too often compare their schools to others in their state and reassure themselves, “We don’t have the problems of the inner-city schools.”

“That comparison doesn’t really count,” he said. “You have to compete against students worldwide if you are going into the labor market and want to be compensated well. A lot of those students are performing at much higher levels than Georgia students are.”

Georgia also posted mediocre results in state comparisons. More than 62 percent of students from Massachusetts families with high levels of parental education are proficient in math, placing that state just behind Germany and Switzerland, two of the top five OECD countries. Only 38 percent of children from highly educated families in Georgia score proficient.

While Peterson hopes the Common Core State Standards will raise expectations, setting higher standards isn’t enough “You can set any kind of standard you want, but unless you translate that into some kind of program, it is not going to make any difference,” he said. “California has some of highest standards in the country, and they are below Georgia.”

Peterson advocates tough exit exams, lauding Massachusetts’s end-of-year standardized test in 10th grade as a key to that state’s education transformation. He also says Georgia has to recruit stronger teachers, improve their compensation and find a way of weeding out the worst teachers.

“So many teacher colleges and education schools are sort of letting anybody walk in the door. Courses aren’t too demanding. And then you get your certification, and you have a guaranteed job,” he said. “We have to have a better quality teaching force, and we have to clarify for students what is expected of them. Right now, teachers have to deal with an indolent culture, which is anti-studying, and a lot teachers have given up.”