Sunday, February 20, 2011
Does Culture = Educational Destiny?
Every three years, the Paris-based Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation& Development (OECD) holds its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the reading, math and science skills of 15-year-olds in developing and developed countries. Interestingly, 4 out of 5 of the top performing countries were East Asian, with the Chinese Students of Shanghai receiving the highest rank (556). In contrast, America's performance (500) was mediocre, prompting Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to declare:
"We have to see this as a wakeup call...I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”
The story becomes much more fascinating and relevant, when you analyze the performance of American students based on their race and ethnicity. To more clearly view the rankings, click on the graph provided. American students of Asian descent received the second highest international rank (541). American students of European descent outperformed (525) the students of every European nation except Finland (536). American students of Hispanic descent outperformed (466) the students of the 8 Latin American nations that were tested, yet scored substantially lower than the American average (500). On average, African-American students outperformed (441) the students of each African and Afro-Caribbean nation. In other words, there is a huge correlation between academic performance and ethnic origin, regardless of the nation that a student resides in. And we also see that for all its faults, the American educational system has augmented the academic performance of students relative to their ethnic compatriots. Granted, the quality of a school certainly influence academic performance, but in the same schools, where each student enjoyed the same level of resources, the relative achievement of ethnic groups held steady.
During my time as a Spanish and History teacher, in my classroom, working class Chinese immigrants outperformed White, Hispanic and African-American students, even though they barely spoke English, let alone Spanish! I presume that this will elicit protests or nervous silence from progressives, but the conclusions are clear as day: in matters of education, culture is destiny. Clearly some cultures encourage education, discipline and investment more than others. This leads me to believe that a huge component in the educational challenges that the United States faces are cultural. The larger and more controversial challenge will be to factor this data into the generation of public policy that will increase our international educational and economic competitiveness. In the long run, school reform that is not accompanied by shifts in culture and behavior, will fail. But, such changes cannot simply be legislated into existence, they must "organically" occur overtime via the aggregate effect of the choices that individuals, families and communities make. It took decades for educational "experts" and cultural figures to erode discipline, competition and achievement-orientation via a focus on self esteem, cultural relativism and a host of other questionable pedagogic theories and it will take decades to repair the damage.
While there is little that the government can do to effect immediate cultural changes, policies can alter demographic trajectories in a manner which will impact future educational and economic outcomes. To put it simply, the surest way to raise the mean educational level of a nation is by increasing the number of educated oriented individuals and families. A good starting point would be to realign immigration policies away from chain migration towards one that focuses on bringing in highly educated, highly skilled workers and their families, regardless of race or national origin. The implications of such a shift cannot be overstated, because of the strong correlation that exists between the educational and economic output of 1st generation immigrants and that of their 2nd, 3rd and even 4th generation descendants. Unfortunately any serious discussion of culture and ethnic origin will crash head long into a wall of taboos and intellectual dishonesty.