Tax cuts for the rich, or better teachers in schools?

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By Matt Miller
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 1:00 PM

It was depressing enough when the president caved on extending $120 billion in tax cuts for the highest-earning 2 percent of Americans at a time of war and surging debt. As proof of White House fear and timidity, and Republican greed and myopia, the news doesn't get much worse.

That's $120 billion over two years that won't go to boost job creation. Nor will it fund a portion of the $300 billion we'll spend on wars during same period - instead, we'll borrow that abroad and hand the bill to the kids. Worse, none of that cash will be available to lure America's top young talent to the classroom by finally making teaching a prestigious, well-paying career.

Oops - I forgot - no one in the tax and budget talks was talking about transforming the teaching profession as part of America's long-term economic recovery plan. After all, that would mean thinking beyond 2012. Yet the education world was rocked Tuesday when students in Shanghai, in that city's debut on a respected international test, outscored dozens of other countries in math, science and reading.

Shanghai was No. 1 in all three subjects; the United States was 17th, 23rd and 31st. "I'm thinking Sputnik," Chester Finn, a Reagan administration education official, told the New York Times.

This grim reminder of our lagging schools comes atop stunning new research that shows that even America's best students aren't achieving anything close to world-class performance.

The alarming report comes courtesy of scholars Eric Hanushek of Stanford, Paul Peterson of Harvard and Ludger Woessman of the University of Munich, in the journal Education Next. In an article, "Teaching Math to the Talented," the trio compared the percentage of U.S. students who reach advanced levels of math achievement with the performance of other countries.

What do they find? In the high school class of 2009, 6 percent of U.S. students reached advanced levels of math achievement. This compares with 28 percent in Taiwan and 20 percent or more in Hong Kong, Finland and South Korea. Twelve other countries had more than twice the percentage of high achievers as the United States: Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Macao-China, Australia, Germany and Austria.

Also outperforming the United States were Slovenia, Denmark, Iceland, France, Estonia, Sweden, Britain, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Ireland and Lithuania.

As the authors note, "the only OECD countries producing a smaller percentage of advanced math students than the United States are Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Mexico." On the bright side, we're just about tied with Latvia.

These are national results. The authors then explode the myth that our best-performing states are nonetheless world class. Massachusetts, often seen as our gold standard, trails 14 countries, with rates of advanced math students similar to Germany and France. No. 2 Minnesota lags behind 16 nations, placing it on a par with Slovenia and Denmark. Texas and New York are about the same as Lithuania and Russia. The lowest-performing states - West Virginia, New Mexico and Mississippi - do worse than Serbia or Uruguay, "although they do edge out Romania, Brazil and Kyrgyzstan," the authors note dryly.

"This is not a story of some states doing well but being dragged down by states that perform poorly," the authors add. "Nor is it a story of immigrant or disadvantaged or minority students hiding the strong performance of better-prepared students. Comparatively small percentages of white students are high achievers. Only a small proportion of the children of our college-educated population is equipped to compete with students in a majority of OECD countries."

Math (and science) achievement today predicts technological leadership and economic strength tomorrow. So these results should shock us. And they're related to the tax debate. We'll never attract enough talented young Americans to teach subjects such as math and science when average starting teacher salaries in the United States are $39,000 and rise (over decades) to an average maximum of $67,000. That tax benefit of $120 billion might have endowed a hefty federal effort to remake the teaching profession for the 21st century. The showdown could have been between "the new generation of teachers America needs to compete" vs. "lower taxes for the top."

This is how the debate needs to start sounding - and fast. As part of her newly launched advocacy group, Students First, former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee should take these scary new findings to editorial boards, business groups and PTAs in every state. Only when enough of us wake up to the fact that we're losing badly in today's global education race will we have a hope of getting serious about turning things around.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmillernow.


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