BOOK REVIEW: 'Endangering Prosperity'

Sunday, September 8, 2013

We are now 30 years beyond the landmark government report “A Nation At Risk,” which warned the country that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.” Since that time, the nation has attempted to redress school failure in myriad ways. Education expenditures are 2.5 times what they were in 1970. Classes are smaller. Parents have more choices for educating their children: Online education, home schooling and charter schools are now enormously popular.

Still, education bigwigs Eric A. Hanushek (Stanford), Paul E. Peterson (Harvard) and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich) make abundantly clear in their new book, “Endangering Prosperity,” that American students are still dangerously underperforming their global counterparts. Just 7 percent of U.S. eighth-graders are performing at an advanced proficient level in math, lower than 29 other countries. Only 32 percent of students were proficient in math, lagging behind 21 other countries. Only 31 percent of the high school class of 2011 was proficient in reading. The nation’s children aren’t doing so hot, compared with the rest of the world. Why does it matter?

The substance of the book depends on the argument that a workforce with high levels of knowledge is correlated with the kind of high gross domestic product growth rate that America used to enjoy. If the United States only attained Canada’s performance levels, it would add $77 trillion to the U.S. economy, five times the current GDP. This explains the book’s focus on America’s deficit of high-performing math students. Math, they write, “appears to be the subject in which accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s future well-being. Existing research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict future earnings and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high school.”

In other words, math is critically important to developing intellectual capital and preserving our economic competitive advantages. Why aren’t our children learning it better? The battle for education reform, the authors say, is not “young versus old.” Rather, it is “a conflict between the needs of school-age children and the interests of those adults who have agreed to educate them in our public schools . They oppose changes in the organization and structure of the school system that would likely enhance the learning opportunities of those for whom they are educationally responsible.”

Having adopted this perspective, the authors attack status quo reforms such as more spending, better-trained teachers and increasing teacher pay. While they acknowledge the importance of good teachers to produce outcomes, they suggest reforming the structure of the American school in a way that would produce discomfort for the education bureaucracy. To the book’s great detriment, however, they do not postulate explicitly what reforms they would like to see (though the final chapter quietly suggests the end of teachers unions).

Still, “Endangering Prosperity” provides a number of useful myth-busting data points. The most important of these is the idea that the poor performance of minority students is responsible for the United States’ abysmal showing in international rankings. In reality, the authors note, only 40 percent of white students are proficient in reading, which would place America ninth in the world. No U.S. state had a majority of its white students proficient in reading (although Massachusetts was close with 49 percent). Only 42 percent of U.S. students from college-educated families were proficient. This suggests that the failures of American students can’t be ascribed to socioeconomic disadvantages alone. Schools are failing to draw the best out of average students, as well as the ones with the most potential.
Many progressive educators and their acolytes think that merely keeping a student enrolled in school for a long time produces the kinds of returns that the authors would like to see. As the authors show conclusively, this is hogwash. Education is about what a person knows, not about how much time they spend treading water. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, most U.S. students do fairly well in their younger years, compared to their foreign counterparts. But by high school, scores indicate that many are far behind. On average, the longer a student spends in an American school, the dumber he gets.
On the whole, “Endangering Prosperity” will generally only appeal to education wonks. The writing is laden with references to TIMMS, PISA, NAEP and other educational acronyms. Numbers are absolutely the oxygen to nearly every one of their arguments. It is a persuasive (and short) volume by some very respected voices on the necessity of keeping pace with other countries.