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Overton: Educational gladiators

BY JON OVERTON | NOVEMBER 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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If the United States and other developed nations’ education systems were engaged in a fierce round of gladiatorial combat, the American side would have been gutted long ago as Japan and South Korea duke it out over who’s better at science. Or so conventional wisdom would tell us.

Surprisingly, some American students have slaughtered the likes of Finland, Japan, Singapore, and other supposed educational heavyweights in the international death match of standardized testing.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently examined data on math- and science-exam scores. The results showed that while the United States has mediocre performance compared with other industrialized nations, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, and a handful of other states are near the very top in math and science scores when compared internationally.

Students from these states are experts in destroying the international competition, so what gives? Why are math and science scores so unequal?

Obviously, the United States is larger than most other countries, so more variability can be expected. However, America’s top performing states share several significant similarities.

Census data show they have high incomes, a huge percentage of their populations have bachelor’s degrees, and poverty rates are fairly low. All of these factors typically make parents more supportive of their children in academic settings. The highest scoring states also tend to spend the most per pupil. This provides better resources and helps attract high-quality teachers.

A report by researchers from Rutgers University and the Education Law Center found that once a school district has at least 2,000 students, it becomes cheaper to teach each extra student, though this mainly presents a challenge for non-affluent rural districts.

Boost wages, hope young people begin attending four-year universities en masse, cluster everyone into major cities, end poverty, and then U.S. students will dominate math and science scores? This left-wing pipedream is already up in flames before takeoff. Next.

While those would be lovely, none of that will happen anytime soon. But there are other ways to shrink the achievement gap, giving students the math and science skills needed to obliterate global competitors.

One of the big problems in U.S. education is that half of public-school funding comes from property taxes. Revenue depends on home values, and because neighborhoods are often segregated along class lines, some schools have plenty while others get scraps.

The United States supposedly spends an ungodly amount of money per pupil on education and has little to show for it, but that’s misleading. Districts that spend more per student tend to perform better.

Governments must provide more funding to disadvantaged school districts. The path to a solid income increasingly requires better education. The global economy will have high-wage jobs and plenty of low-wage jobs without a lot in the middle. No doubt, improving public education will mean reallocating spending and probably raising taxes.

I know, taxes blow. Working Americans were crushed in the recession and have barely recovered since then. But unless we want to damn generations of Americans and a good chunk of the economy with them, public education requires more funding.

If we want to surpass the Finns, the Japanese and the rest of the international competition in math and science, there is little choice.


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