Cross Border Comparisons Among Students
We learn, not for the first time, from an article in today's New York Times, that the highest-performing students in math and science are from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Another achievement gap. American students, we are told, lag far behind. The clear implication is that we need to improve our own performance in order to successfully compete in tomorrow's world.
A couple of things to say about this. First, this particular finding is not new. In the sixties Japan (the author of the so-called economic miracle), and then later, in the seventies and eighties, the Asian "tigers," showed us what their work forces, that is, the graduates of their schools, were able to accomplish in regard to the exceptionally rapid growth in size and strength of their national economies.
Second, we hardly needed the international comparisons. The brilliant performance of the Asian-Americans among our own student populations had been telling us the same thing for a long time. Asian-American students are already, at Berkeley, or are rapidly becoming, at MIT and Harvard, by their high scores on standardized tests, the largest single ethnic group of students at our top colleges and universities.
Third, and this is the sort of thing that no one ever says publicly, Asian kids may just be better at math and science. O.K., this is not necessarily true. It may not be an innate superiority, but something from the environment in which they have grown up, the parental influence, the work ethic etc., not primarily something in their genes. So better may mean better prepared, but how many of us really believe this?
We want to believe the opposite, that all kids can achieve at the level of the Asian tigers. We want to believe in the "proficiency myth," that proficiency in anything will follow effort and hard work. We want to believe that algebra, say, can be learned by all. We want to believe that only externalities, — poverty, the home environment, the classroom teacher, the class size and classroom discipline etc., are holding our students back, keeping them from achieving at the level of the tigers.
We could have made a much more meaningful comparison, our Asians against theirs. Wouldn't it be interesting to see if our Asian students do better than those of Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan? For if so wouldn't that mean that our way of life, our educational system are more effective, if not better, than theirs? I don't know if this comparison has ever been made.
Two final thoughts about all this. One, why do we go on comparing diverse or heterogeneous student bodies, such as those of the typical American suburban high school, with the homogeneous student populations of Singapore or Taiwan? Isn't this apples and oranges? Diversity means among other things diverse gifts and talents, and to measure any single one of them, such as math aptitude and or math achievement, among a diverse population will inevitably lead to lower test scores overall. Didn't we know this?
And two, achievement (and ability?) across ethnic and racial boundaries is not equal. The best distance runners are East African. The best chess players are, or at least were, Russian. The best musicians are now Black and Latino, whereas they perhaps were French and German? The best physicists and mathematicians are Indian, Jewish, Chinese, French, and German? The best basketball players are Black. And so on. Why are we afraid to say things like this?
Isn't it obvious by now (wasn't it always?) that innate ability is not equally distributed? And there's nothing wrong with this, just as there's nothing wrong with children in the same family having different abilities and natural talents. To go on expecting American students to match or better the achievement of students of other countries is to go on adhering to the proficiency myth. And in any case it's just not going to happen that our diverse student bodies are ever going to lead the pack in regard to achievement.
If our country is truly exceptional it must be because it has within it the whole world. We are a country of immigrants. (The anti-immigrant forces among us are shooting themseves and us in the foot.) Within our country are representatives of all racial and ethnic groups. We really don't need to resort to international comparisons. The unequal levels of achievement, the achievement gaps, are all here among us. We don't have to look for them elsewhere.