WASHINGTON, D.C. – Teachers union officials and education bureaucrats like to blame academic problems in American public schools on poverty and other socio-economic factors that distract many students on a daily basis.

HeadinsandBut a recent analysis of international assessment tests provides evidence that poverty isn’t the problem, because even when disadvantaged children are ruled out, U.S. students still lag behind their peers in other industrialized nations, according to a recent column in Education Next.

Education scholar Paul Peterson points to analysis of the Program for International Assessment (PISA) in a new report by America Achieves.

“America Achieves’ contribution is to group students by social and educational ‘advantage’ into four quarters, using an index based on such items as a poverty indicator, education environment at home, and quality of peer group at school,” Peterson writes.

“The organization then focuses its analysis on students in the second and third quarters – those just above and below the median student. By this device, analysts can discover whether the education problem in the United States disappears if one ignores, statistically, the most disadvantaged students.”

The results show that American students just above the index median lagged behind similar students in 24 countries in math. Those just below the index median trail students in 32 countries.

Peterson contends the analysis isn’t perfect, but it does strongly suggest that those who blame poverty for the shortcomings of public schools are likely taking the wrong approach.

If the poverty blamers – those who tout a “Broader, Bolder (and much more expensive) Approach” to education reform – were correct, “students who are not in the lowest quarter of the social spectrum should be doing just as well as similarly situated peers abroad,” according to Peterson.

“That simply is not happening, as the America Achieves study demonstrates.”

That reality hasn’t stopped groups like the union-sponsored Economic Policy Institute from attempting to twist the facts to blame America’s educational deficiencies on social challenges rather than instructional issues.

To Peterson, the American Achieves analysis confirms what many who study education already know:  to fix education we must fix how students are learning.

“That suggestion sounds like a truism,” Peterson writes. “It would be, were it not for the organized forces that insist on disputing the obvious.”

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