Report: Sky Not Falling

by Robert Pondiscio
March 15th, 2011

True or False:

1. The United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation.

2. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.

3. In both reading and math, in raw numbers, the United States produces more high-achieving Hispanic students than Asian students.

4. There are more high-achieving African-American students than high-achieving Finns.

All true, according to an interesting new paper  American Achievement in International Perspective by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull.   The moral of the story?  Size matters and the large number of U.S. students ensures a high number of high achievers across the board.  “In raw numbers, at least, our high-achieving Hispanic and black American students outnumber the high achievers of several other countries,” Petrilli observes at Fordham’s Flypaper blog.  “At the least, this indicates that they will have a seat at the international table—on prestigious college campuses, in the board room, and in the laboratory. It’s a start.”


  1. Statistics can say whatever one wants. RAW numbers, when comparing the U.S. with countries the size of the U.K., Germany, France and Finland are hardly a fair comparison. It would be equally unfair to compare the RAW numbers of high achieving Chinese students with the number of high achieveing U.S. students. The population bases are not even close.

    Comment by Cindy — March 15, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  2. Well, of course, Cindy. That’s the point. It would be easy to conclude from news reports and blogs that U.S. education is so irretrivably broken that no one emerges well educated (hence my tongue-in-cheek hed). The raw numbers are interesting, if misleading. That said if you’re someone who views education through a purely economic prism (I’m not), then the raw numbers of high achievers is interesting. Might one expect those individuals to drive dynamism and job creation, etc. for the rest of us?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 15, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

  3. What is interesting to note as well, is that those firms that get to pick from the high achievers – the top graduates from the top schools – still find that most of the success of their companies are driven by only 20% of their work forces. Being a person of passion, personal drive, and the willingness to serve the needs of others is often far more important than mere high achievement in math or science in school – which begs the question of what is the best way to define “high achievement” – and for what purpose.

    Comment by Tucker — March 15, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

  4. What’s truly astounding is the source of those statistics. Gerald Bracey spent years deconstructing oversimplified, from-the-hip numbers used by policy-makers and school critics, making the same points as Petrilli & Co–in addition to the very salient observation that schools with less than 10% poverty (as most first-world nation’s schools–except ours–are) rank very favorably.

    What’s gotten into Petrilli and Fordham? Trying to reassure the Ivies that there is still plenty more where that came from?

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 15, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

  5. What exactly are Petrilli and Scull arguing? Are they trying to prove that the US has sufficient students at the top level to be sure that they can produce the ‘next scientific breakthroughs’?

    Of course the US has sufficient top level students. Where we do not have them, we import them heavily. More than 1/2 of our math and engineering PhDs come from school systems abroad.

    The scientific breakthroughs of our best scientists owe more to the quality of our colleges, and to the open, liberal society that permits scientists and engineers to move about freely – and less to the low quality of our elementary and secondary schools.

    That’s why, to paraphrase Joseph Nye, the biggest threat to our economy is not our pre-college school education – but political parochialism directed against the open society and the open economy.

    Germany, France and Britain are in the same boat with us – they also make up the quality of their schools by virtue of being liberal societies that attract top talent educated in countries abroad.

    All while countries with low immigration (Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan) top the PISA charts. Of course, these countries can’t afford to have lax schools – their economies depend fully on the students output by their national school systems.

    But to the question list, may I add a couple?

    5. Which country graduates now more engineers – the US or South Korea?

    6. Every year of the last ten years, the US has been a net exporter or a net importer in the high tech sector?

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 16, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  6. But I do find one quote in the report that is fascinating:

    “America’s educational problems are the world’s problems”…

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 16, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  7. Many great things are happening in public education around our country. It’s the media’s right wing agenda of preserving wealth and sacrificing the education of our poor and minority youth. They are throwing public education under the (school)bus because they don’t want to invest in community-minded people. Elitist power is crafting this position that teachers are bad, unions are bad, and that public schools are bad. This is simply not the truth. Studies like these demonstrate and highlight the fruits of the labor. It’s down in the trenches at Title I school and inner city schools where the bad rap thrives. Working in this population takes knack, know how, and staying power. Remarkably, successes in these communities are numerous and breathtaking, but they get downplayed because of all the hype for test scores.

    Comment by Clarky — March 17, 2011 @ 9:10 am

  8. Having spent far more years in the media than in the classroom, Clarky, I’m not sure I buy the “right wing agenda” of the media. Media loves novelty and conflict, and education coverage reflects this. The dominant narrative of “we know how to get every student to achieve if only it weren’t for X” is nuance-averse, and downplays the extraordinary complexity (complexity being something media is not especially well-suited to explain) of the process.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 17, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  9. [...] how’s that risky nation doing these days? Surprisingly well, writes Robert Pondiscio in the Core Knowledge Blog — not exactly a font of giddy enthusiasm for American [...]

    Pingback by The week in blogs « School Board News — October 5, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

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