Inequity is the biggest problem with U.S. education

Enough with the Sputnik talk. Seems like every time a report comes out showing how far behind their global peers our children are in their studies, all the Serious People intone about the 1957 kick in the pants that touched off the space race.

But the talk always rings hollow. It doesn’t get anybody moving.

The latest shocker came with the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which showed students in Shanghai well ahead of the global pack. The study tested 15-year-olds from 65 OECD member nations in math, science and reading. (China wasn’t assessed as a whole, but Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao were separately.)

The United States ranked 24th, the middle of the pack. Cue the cliches. ...

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” declared President Barack Obama.

“Wow, I’m kind of stunned. I’m thinking Sputnik,” Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in Ronald Reagan’s education team, told the New York Times.

Faced with the new rankings, Britain, France, Germany and other nations announced plans to study and overhaul their educational systems. The U.S. pretty much shrugged. And some began searching for faults in the analysis.

Every time such figures are released, some Americans content themselves to do a little math. They subtract the inconvenient students. Take out underachieving minority students, they say, and we’re not doing so badly.

True, white and Asian students have vastly better graduation and achievement rates than African American and Hispanic students do. But if you want to know the biggest problem in the U.S. education system, it’s this: inequality.

Tucked into news stories about the testing was the finding that the highest achieving school systems in the world were the ones where social class tends not to predict student achievement. Think about that. In countries where students from all social and economic backgrounds are well-represented among highest academic achievers, student achievement on the whole is higher.

Inequality is America’s Achilles heel. Class level still matters greatly when it comes to student achievement. I realize this is hardly rocket science. Turning it around will be.

Consider that the U.S. fell from being ranked No. 2 to No. 13 in college graduation rates between 1995 and 2008, the report said. This wasn’t because our rates necessarily declined, but other countries charged ahead.

If we applied ourselves to solving the class disparities in our education system, our overall position could rise again. That would require significantly boosting diploma rates in four years for blacks (46 percent), Hispanics (44 percent) and American Indians (49 percent). Nationally, our high school graduation rate now hovers near 69 percent. The U.S. rate peaked in 1969 at 77 percent.

Obviously, the American public school system is far ahead of those of other nations where dense poverty and paternalistic attitudes toward female students keep whole swaths of children out of school. But those countries aren’t our main competitors.

Educating workers to do jobs that cannot be “digitized, automated and outsourced,” is the goal, the report accompanying the rankings said.

So skip Sputnik. Here is a reference point more likely to resonate with the Twitterbrains of our Facebook nation. Oprah.

Oprah is fond of using the imagery of pebbles and rocks. She invokes the idea that when God (substitute your own supernatural power, if necessary) needs to get your attention to a situation, he first throws little pebbles. “Hello, anyone home?”

The small stones are annoying, but easily brushed away reminders to change course. The longer a person doesn’t pay attention, the bigger the rocks become.

Finally, the genuinely clueless get a brick upside the head. Whap!

Pebbles, we’re at pebbles. And not enough of us are bothered. Not yet anyway.

Mary Sanchez, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, can be reached at msanchez@kcstar.com.