US 'in denial' over poor maths standards

Emergency vehicle used in quelling of a disturbance at Jackson State College in 1970 Lost direction: Rusting emergency vehicle used in the 1970 protests at Jackson State College, Mississippi

The maths skills of teenagers in parts of the deep south of the United States are worse than in countries such as Turkey and barely above countries such as Chile and Mexico.

An international study of maths ability in the US shows how individual states would have performed if they were ranked against other countries, using the OECD's Pisa results as a benchmark.

The study also shows that privileged youngsters in the US, with highly-educated parents, are lagging behind similar youngsters in other developed countries.

This analysis, from academics at Harvard and Stanford in the US and Munich University in Germany, punctures the idea that middle-class US pupils are high achievers.

Southern states Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are among the weakest performers, with results similar to developing countries such as Kazakhstan and Thailand.

West Virginia is also among the group of lowest performers, where maths levels are far below western European countries or high-performing Asian education systems in South Korea or Singapore.

The US has been a mediocre performer in international education tests, based on average performance across the country, but this study shows how this average conceals a remarkably wide range of successes and failures.

Northern lights

There is a band of high achieving states across the north of the US, where maths results would be as good as many successful European and Asian countries.

US townscape There is a complacency about mainstream US education standards, says study

If Massachusetts had been considered as a separate entity it would have been the seventh best at maths in the world.

Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey and Montana are all high performers.

But there is a long tail of underachievement that dips well below the levels of secondary school pupils in wealthier western European countries. It dips into levels closer to the developing world.

New York and California are similar in ability to countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, well below the averages for the US and OECD industrialised countries.

There are 23 US states which would be ranked below 30th place in an international ranking of 34 OECD countries at maths.

The study also overturns the idea that middle-class children in the US are as good as their international counterparts.

It shows that in the US, as in other countries, children from better educated, wealthier families will achieve better results than poorer children.

Among children of parents with a low level of education, only 17% were proficient in maths, compared with 43% of children from well-educated families.

Falling behind

But this standard of maths among well-educated families in US is well below their counterparts in other countries.

In Poland, 71% of children from well-educated families were likely to be proficient in maths. In Germany, 64% of better-off children were proficient at maths and 55% in France.

Start Quote

Paul Peterson

There is a denial phenomenon”

End Quote Paul E Peterson Professor of government at Harvard University

Even such a poor performance was unlikely to set off alarm bells, said Paul Peterson, report co-author and professor of government at Harvard University and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.

"There is a denial phenomenon," says Prof Peterson.

He said the tendency to make internal comparisons between different groups within the US had shielded the country from recognising how much they are being overtaken by international rivals.

"The American public has been trained to think about white versus minority, urban versus suburban, rich versus poor," he said.

The outcome was a misleading sense of complacency about middle-class education, which always appeared to be ahead, he said.

Report authors, Prof Peterson, Eric Hanushek at Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann at the University of Munich, wrote in Education Next magazine: "Lacking good information, it has been easy even for sophisticated Americans to be seduced by apologists who would have the public believe the problems are simply those of poor kids in central city schools. "

"Our results point in quite the opposite direction," .

California down

The underachievement in some southern states was a reflection of deep-rooted historical divides and disadvantages, Prof Peterson said, such as slavery and segregation.

Massachusetts state capitol Massachusetts has high results by international standards

But the study raises questions about how other southern states can buck the trend, such as Texas.

Among the children of poorly educated families, Texas is a spectacularly strong performer, equivalent to sixth place in the OECD rankings, just behind Finland.

California raised another set of negative questions, said Prof Peterson, with a very low performance.

"California was historically thought to have a good education system, but it's plunged since the 1970s," he said.

It has an economy big enough to match many OECD countries, but in education comparisons it would be a lightweight, its maths performance weaker than in almost any other industrialised country.

"It's where the rubber hits the road," said Prof Peterson.

There were long-term implications from all this, he said. Industries were concentrating around areas with successful education systems. And success in education was linked to healthier and wealthier lives for individuals.

Rebecca Winthrop, director for the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, said the findings would "raise eyebrows". In particular, she thought it would be a wake-up call for well-educated parents who thought that worries about education were a problem for "other people's children".

But she said it was important to remember the great size of the country - and that even getting down to state level there were still huge underlying disparities and inequalities.

"California is in itself a huge place," she said. And any aggregate results are going to hide the gulf between schools serving the Silicon Valley super rich and the migrant poor.

Andreas Schleicher, responsible for the OECD's Pisa tests, said this study was a challenge to middle-class households who thought that debates about school standards did not apply to them.

"The general perception has typically been that this is mainly a concern around poor schools in poor neighbourhoods and so middle-class families have often not been particularly engaged in this," he said.

In the short term, he said, the US economy would be insulated against this underachievement because it still had a "strong skill base, simply because it was the first economy investing in universal education in the 1960s, and those people still make up a large part of the workforce".

But this legacy would not last forever.

"As time goes by, skill gaps will become increasingly apparent," he said.

The report authors conclude that as well as focusing on the gap between rich and poor, the US needs to pay more attention to the rear lights of their international rivals as they race away ahead of them.

Maths standards

How US states would compare with OECD member states in maths tests

1. South Korea

2. Japan

3. Switzerland

4. Netherlands

5. Finland

6. Estonia

Massachusetts

7. Canada

8. Belgium

9. Germany

10. Poland

Minnesota

New Jersey

11. Austria

Vermont

Montana

12 Australia

13. Czech Republic

14. Ireland

New Hampshire

Colorado

15. New Zealand

16. Slovenia

17. Denmark

North Dakota

18. France

South Dakota

19. United Kingdom

Wisconsin

Kansas

20. Iceland

Washington

Maryland

21. Luxembourg

Texas

Virginia

22. Norway

Ohio

Pennsylvania

23. Portugal

Maine

Wyoming

24. Italy

25. Slovak Republic

North Carolina

26. Spain

Idaho

Alaska

Utah

27. United States

28. Sweden

Indiana

Rhode Island

Iowa

29. Israel

30. Hungary

Illinois

Nebraska

Oregon

Delaware

South Carolina

Missouri

Arizona

Michigan

Kentucky

New York

Hawaii

Arkansas

Nevada

Georgia

Florida

Oklahoma

California

31. Greece

Tennessee

New Mexico

32. Turkey

Louisiana

West Virginia

Alabama

Mississippi

33. Chile

34. Mexico

More on This Story

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    MARKET UPDATE 10:23:
    FTSE 100 chart

    Let's take a quick look at the FTSE. It rose into positive territory, as you might expect, following the GDP announcement. It's currently hovering 0.07% higher at 6826.38. That's as much to do with the fact the news was expected as it is anything else. So a positive reaction from investors but not an overly exuberant one. is still leading the way, up 13.5% to 372.70p, after its surprisingly positive half-year profits announcement earlier today.

     
  2.  
    GDP FIGURES 10:17:
    Table showing GDP growth of the G7

    It's also worth pointing out that the UK was the fastest-growing economy of the G7 in the first quarter (3% year-on-year), as the table above shows. And just look at the US (1.5% year-on-year). When was the last time the UK economy grew at twice the pace of the US economy? Answers on a postcard (or email as its the 21st century) please.

     
  3.  
    GDP FIGURES 10:07:

    Breaking down the GDP figures for the three months to the end of June:

    • Industrial production almost halved to 0.4% quarter-on-quarter
    • Manufacturing output rose just 0.2% quarter-on-quarter.
    • Construction output contracted 0.5% quarter-on-quarter, that's the first drop since the first quarter of 2013.
    • Output in the services sector grew 1% quarter-on-quarter.
     
  4.  
    BSKYB PROFITS 09:56:
    Rupert Murdoch

    BSkyB has also announced it will pay around £4.9bn in cash to Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox to buy out Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland. Under the deal BSkyB will pay £2.45bn for 100% of Sky Italia, part of which will be by handing over a share of National Geographic, and £2.9bn for Fox's 57% stake in Sky Deutschland to create a combined group with nearly 20 million customers.

     
  5.  
  6.  
    GDP FIGURES 09:45:
    chart showing contributions to GDP

    It looks like things are not all rosy in the garden. The UK's dominant services sector has expanded past its previous 2008 peak - that's the green line. It's dragged GDP above the previous peak as a result (don't forget services account for almost 80% of GDP). But everything else - construction, industrial production and manufacturing - remains well below the 2008 peak.

     
  7.  
    GDP FIGURES 09:38:

    More from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Economic output was estimated to be 0.2% above the peak recorded in the first quarter of 2008. From peak to trough, which was in 2009, the economy shrank by 7.2%, the ONS adds. We'll bring you reaction as it comes in.

     
  8.  
    GDP FIGURES 09:35:

    GDP was in-line with the 0.8% estimate for the three months to the end of June. As an aside, here is a feature worth a read, asking whether we should be interested in gross domestic product at all. Bobby Kennedy said GDP "does not allow for the health of our children... or the joy of their play."

     
  9.  
    GDP FIGURES 09:30: Breaking News

    It's official. UK economic output was 0.8% in the second quarter of this year. That means the economy has now passed its previous 2008 peak.

     
  10.  
    GDP FIGURES 09:25: BBC Radio 4

    More from Ms Bell on the economy: She says it is typical that output recovers after about four years (following a recession) but this time its taken six "so its been quite a struggle." After Thursday's upgrade to its economic growth forecast for the UK, she adds, the IMF is looking for even stronger growth next year.

     
  11.  
    PEARSON RESULTS 09:19:

    Financial Times owner Pearson Group has reported a pre-tax loss of £36m for the six months to the end of June. That compares with a loss of £16m a year earlier.

     
  12.  
    NO ARGENTINA DEAL 09:06:
    Argentina"s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

    Argentina failed to reach a deal for its debts late on Thursday, with hedge funds demanding full payment on its defaulted bonds, veering closer to what the IMF warned could be a painful new default. There's less than a week to go to either pay up or risk being declared in default. Argentine officials met with the US court-appointed mediator trying to break the impasse, but refused to meet the hedge funds' representatives directly.

     
  13.  
    RBS RESULTS Via Twitter Kamal Ahmed BBC Business editor

    tweets: RBS Ross McEwan says UK recovery "broader than a consumer recovery". Gross lending to businesses up.

     
  14.  
    RBS RESULTS 08:41:

    More market musings on RBS. Chirantan Barua, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, says the reduction in money set aside for bad loans was "extremely strong" compared with City expectations. Sales and capital were better than he expected too, he said. He reckons the shares may be worth 440p apiece.

     
  15.  
    RBS RESULTS Via Twitter Kamal Ahmed BBC Business editor

    tweets: RBS CEO Ross McEwan says there has been a cooling in the mortgage and housing market over the last two months. "That is not a bad thing."

     
  16.  
    MARKET UPDATE 08:24:

    European markets are lower today with investors focused on earnings news and economic data release. The biggest rise on the FTSE 100 is perhaps unsurprisingly RBS - up 10.07% or 33.10p so far to 361.9p after it took everyone by surprise by announcing first-half pre-tax profits of £2.65bn a week early.

    • The FTSE 100 is 0.28% lower at 6806.49
    • The Dax is down 0.22% to 9772.94
    • The Cac-40 has fallen 0.50% at 4138.73
     
  17.  
    RBS RESULTS 08:11:

    Vivek Raja, an analyst at Oriel Securities, is one of the first out of the traps with some insight into what the RBS results mean. "The preannouncement reflects better than expected operating performance on credit performance, in the Bad Bank (RBS Capital Resolution) and on capital ratios," he says. So that means 1) loans are performing better, 2) the worst loans are performing better, and 3) the bank has more capital as a percentage of loans.

     
  18.  
    VODAFONE 07:56:
    People walk past a Vodafone shop

    Vodafone's first quarter trading shows the mobile operator getting no relief from its European market. Group service revenue - that's customers buying handsets and using the Vodafone network to you and me - was £6.4bn in the three months to 30 June, down 7.9% on the same period last year. Competition and regulation "continue to create a challenging operating environment," it says.

     
  19.  
    LLOYDS SETTLEMENT 07:41:
    A general view of a sign for Lloyds Bank

    Lloyds Banking Group has responded to recent stories regarding settlements "with a number of government agencies" regarding rates setting - Libor. It's in "late-stage" discussions, it says.

     
  20.  
     
  21.  
    RBS RESULTS 07:27:
    RBS

    "Asset quality continued to improve in the UK and Ireland," says what was once the world's largest bank. In English, more of their loans are more likely to be repaid in full and on time. The bank has set aside £22.4bn against bad loans, down from £25.2bn in December. Ulster bank posted a modest profit of £55m - that's from a £381m loss a year ago.

     
  22.  
    BSKYB PROFITS 07:20:
    British Sky Broadcasting headquarters

    BSkyB has reported a slight slip in annual pre-tax profit to £1,1bn compared with £1,2bn a year earlier. Tax for the year was £249m compared with £295m in 2013, an effective tax rate of 21% as a result of the reduction in the rate of UK corporation tax.

     
  23.  
    RBS RESULTS 07:16:

    Pre-tax profit was £2.65bn, up from £1.37bn as impairments dropped like a stone -- down to £269m from £2.15bn. Those reductions in bad loan costs far outweighed a rise in restructuring costs and a drop in sales. £150m was added to provisions for Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) and £100m to interest rate swap provisions.

     
  24.  
    RBS RESULTS 07:08: Breaking News

    A turn up for the books. Royal Bank of Scotland Group has put out its first-half results early. They were due 1 August, according to the bank. Operating profit rose to £2.6bn from £708m in 2013.

     
  25.  
    BALFOUR MERGER 07:02:
    A Balfour Beatty workman on a construction site

    UK construction firm Balfour Beatty is in talks with rival Carillion about a potential £3.05bn merger, it has emerged. The two companies confirmed what they described as "preliminary discussions." In a joint statement they said they believed a "merger of the two groups has the potential to create a market leading services, investments, and construction business of considerable depth and scale."

     
  26.  
    DISCOUNT STORES 06:51: Radio 5 live

    Look out for Hussein Lalani, co-founder and commercial director of the 99p stores, on 5 live. He says before the recession suppliers would just give them their leftovers. Now many brands are making products just for the discount market.

     
  27.  
    GDP FIGURES 06:40: BBC Radio 4

    Marian Bell, economist and former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee has been talking to the Today programme about the UK's economic recovery. She says it is "people are expecting a 0.9% rise in output and that would be sufficient to surpass the 2008 level." But it has taken more time to achieve that economic recovery than in the past. In fact, she says, it has been "the longest that output has been below its previously level for more than 100 years."

     
  28.  
    GDP FIGURES 06:27: Radio 5 live

    Elaine Coverley, head of equity research at Brewin Dolphin is on Wake up to Money. "We need other markets to keep that going," she says of growing UK gross domestic product. Markets like the US aren't doing so well. The IMF slashed its US economic growth estimate on Wednesday to 1.7% for 2014.

     
  29.  
    GDP FIGURES 06:11: Radio 5 live

    "The consumer is doing a lot of the heavy lifting," in the economy, says economist Alan Clarke of Scotiabank on 5 live. How, when wages are stagnant? The housing market, of course. As the value of homes rises, people are prepared to save less and spend more without earning more. House prices won't go up at the current rate forever, though, he says.

     
  30.  
    GDP FIGURES 06:03: Radio 5 live

    CBI director-general, John Cridland is still on 5 live. The recovery is currently investment-led rather than export-led. Sterling's strength isn't helping but isn't wholly choking things off either, he says.

     
  31.  
    GDP FIGURES 06:01: Radio 5 live

    Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry John Cridland expects growth of 0.8% in the second quarter, he tells 5 live. "We are getting some balance in the recovery, like a boxer in the boxing ring finding his feet," he says. Companies are investing, finally, he says, and that's crucial. This is what will add to wages.

     
  32.  
    06:00: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Good morning! Please get in touch via email on bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or via twitter @BBCBusiness

     
  33.  
    06:00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Good morning. So, let's catch up from last night: Amazon had a tough second quarter, as did General Motors. And the International Monetary Fund downgraded its global economic growth forecast. Here at home it's as good as confirmed that the UK is richer than it has ever been (you literally have never had it so good, you lucky, lucky people). Do you feel richer than you did last year? How about last week? Or yesterday even? We'll find out at 09:30 with second quarter GDP, so stay with us.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • Leader of Hamas Khaled MeshaalHARDtalk Watch

    BBC exclusive: Hamas leader on the eagerness to end bloodshed in Gaza

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.