Education, immigration, and diversity

According to a just-released study, eighth-grade students in more than half of the U.S. states performed better than the international average on a test in science. In math, eighth-graders in 36 states outperformed the international average.

On the other hand, even students in top performing states were significantly outperformed by their counterparts in South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand.

I imagine that the results of this study will provide fuel for both sides in the debate over the desirability of national standards.

But how meaningful are comparisons between the performance on tests of U.S. students vs. students in countries like South Korea? I believe they are of limited utility, given the diversity — linguistic, ethnic, and cultural — that exists in the U.S.

South Korea’s population is about 16 percent of that of the U.S. And, as Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute points out that, far from experiencing an increase in its immigrant population, as the U.S. has done so conspicuously, South Korea is losing migrants. Ethnically, South Korea is almost completely homogeneous. Linguistically, everyone speaks Korean.

There is also the matter of family structure. I don’t have data about this for South Korea, but unless childhood pregnancies, absent fathers, and divorce are rampant there, one is comparing apples and oranges if one evaluates the quality of instruction in the two countries based on test scores.

It isn’t just comparisons to Asian countries that suffer from an inability to account for diversity. Finland (with a population 2 percent the size of ours) was the top finisher in a 2006 assessment called PISA. According to McCluskey’s paper, Finland has a net migration of 0.68 immigrants per 1,000 people. In America, the number is 4.31.

Finns account for about 93 percent of the Finnish population, while ethnic Swedes account for about 6 percent. In the U.S., the population is still mostly white, but 13 percent African-American, 15 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian.

Finally, again according to McCluskey’s paper, 91 percent of Finns speak Finnish. Only 82 percent of Americans speak English.

Germany — whose performance on most international tests is roughly comparable to that of the U.S. — makes for a better comparator than South Korea and Finland. But it too is significantly less diverse. Germany has about half the number of immigrants per capita as the U.S. 92 percent of its population is German. And German is the only native language spoken in Germany.

My point is not to defend education in the U.S. I simply want to question the utility of, and the need for, comparisons to foreign countries.

The American left tends to base calls for reform it desires (which invariably means more government control) on statistics that are driven by social factors it either supports, abets or ignores. For example, we are urged radically to reform our health care system based in part on statistics such as a high rate (compared to other prosperous nations) of infant mortality. Yet, these statistics surely have much to do with the breakdown of family structure and the habits and behavior of those who become pregnant in America.

Like our health care system, our education system could do with reform. But reform should not be driven by statistics that understate the quality of instruction by failing to account for the social situation in America, including the social situation that results from our immigration policies.