Amanda Ripley


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Why Do Our Rich Kids Rank 23rd in Math…?

14th Dec 2011 posted in Education

The other day, I posted the country rankings you never hear about—the only legitimate ones to show how countries’ most privileged 15-year-olds do on the PISA test of what kids know around the world.*

Our richest kids rank No. 7 in reading. OK, so it is not No.1, as others keep insisting, and we spend way more money per student to get there. But I’ll take it. No. 7 is still a perfectly respectable performance—well above the OECD average for rich kids.

But it got me thinking: What about math and science? How did our most privileged kids (who are, by the way, more privileged than most countries’ well-off children) do in math and science?

Oh Lord…Brace yourselves, suburban parents:

With thanks to the folks at the Education Trust who helped me ferret out this data from the PISA results, here we go:

MATH ACHIEVEMENT of the most privileged teenagers around the world:

1. Belgium

2. Netherlands

3. South Korea

4. Finland

5. New Zealand

6. Japan

7. Switzerland

8. Czech Republic

9. Canada

10. Australia

11. Germany

(Still going…)

12. Denmark

13. France

14. Sweden

15. Austria

16. Hungary

17. Slovak Republic (!)

18. Iceland

(Hang in there…)

19. Luxembourg

20. Ireland

21. Norway

22. Poland


There it is, No. 23 out of 29 countries in math, according to the 2003 PISA exam (which was the last time math was the primary focus of the test, yielding enough data to make such comparisons).

Wow. How to explain this? Our most privileged kids attend, on average, the most well-resourced schools in the world with some of the smallest class sizes and among the most credentialed, experienced, well-paid teachers. They have educated parents, books at home and computers to use, and this sample includes our private-school students.

And yet they score below the OECD average in math when compared to other countries most-privileged students. What is going on here?

SCIENCE ACHIEVEMENT of the most privileged teenagers around the world:

1. Finland

2. New Zealand

3. Netherlands

4. Canada

5. Australia

6. Germany

7. United Kingdom

8. Czech Republic

9. Belgium

10. Switzerland

11. Japan

12. France

13. Austria

14. Hungary

15. Ireland

16. Sweden

17. South Korea


In science, our most privileged students ring in 18th out of 30 countries, per the 2006 PISA test (the last one that had science as its primary focus.) This is, as in math, just below the OECD average for similarly affluent kids.

Why does it matter?

I bring this up just to point out that it is possible for kids to learn at much higher levels than our kids are learning—even our most-advantaged kids. I am not (repeat, not!) saying that poverty doesn’t matter; it obviously matters enormously. Let’s just stop talking about poverty as if it is some dark force that acts in isolation from the rest of our institutions.

Even if we could magically eliminate poverty in America (which would be a beautiful thing and something we should try much harder to do), then we still would not have world-class education outcomes.

Anyone care to offer a theory for why our most affluent kids score 23rd in math and 18th in science? Is it a lack of motivation? An overabundance of wealth? If so, why aren’t we below average in reading, too?

*And remember, before you send me links to wildly misleading blog posts and demand a recount: these rankings listed here rely upon PISA’s own carefully administered survey of students’ socioeconomic status known as the index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status—not a hijacked table regarding free-or-reduced price lunch ratios that was never ever intended to be used for international comparisons.