Carnoy and Rothstein Disgrace the Honest Marxian Tradition

Paul Peterson
Year of publication: 
January 16, 2013

If correct, a barn burner of a study has just been released by the once self-proclaimed Marxist, Martin Carnoy, and his good friend Richard Rothstein. If you take into account the extraordinary size of the proletariat in the United States, and the miniscule size of its bourgeois, U. S. students are doing almost as well in math and reading as students in other industrialized countries. Even the Koreans don’t do much better, they say.

If Carnoy and Rothstein are correct, the conventional wisdom about U. S. standing in the world has been tossed into a cocked hat. “If the social class distribution of the United States were similar to that of top-scoring countries [Korea, Finland and Canada], the average test score gap between the United States and these top-scoring countries would be cut in half in reading and by one-third in math,” they announce. “Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U. S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.” In the words of the press release promoting the study: “U.S. students’ scores are low in part because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students come from disadvantaged social class groups” than is the case in the six countries with which it is being compared (France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the top-scoring ones mentioned above).

Their claims feed the mantra of left-wingers, who are still celebrating their occupation of Wall Street and accompanying attack on the one-percenters. More worrisome, the findings feed the public perception that local schools are good; it’s just those urban schools that serve minority students that are under-performing. For those who wish to resist the forces of school reform, the Carnoy-Rothstein study is a godsend.

What is the trick? How do Carnoy and Rothstein manage to raise U. S. educational performance to international standards simply by adjusting for the social-class background of its students? Isn’t average income in the United States at least as high as in any of the other six countries? Hasn’t a spreading middle class replaced the industrial working class? Is the upper middle class really vanishing? Has immigration from abroad been so vast that a mass proletariat is swamping the country, just as the most extreme elements within the Tea Party movement have been claiming? What in heck do Carnoy and Rothstein actually mean when they speak relentlessly about social class?

Answer: A person’s social class is determined by the number of books 15-year old students estimate are in their home.

To repeat: The only adjustment for social class used in this study is the student estimate of the number of books in his or her home. In 2009 a higher percentage of U. S. students (than those in the other six countries) told PISA, the international testing agency, that they came from a family with few books in the home. Condensing Carnoy-Rothstein’s six categories into three, the table below summarizes the facts reported in their table 2A.

Click to enlarge

Only 18 percent of U. S. students say they have many books in their home; in the other countries this percentage varies between 20 percent and 31 percent. In the United States 38 percent say they have few books in their home. In the other countries, this percentage varies between 14 percent and 30 percent.

These facts are worrisome. Student reports of books in the home was found to be a good predictor of student achievement back in the 1960s by James Coleman and his colleagues, and many researchers have found similar results ever since. But serious scholars do not treat the correlation as causal, as reports of books in the home may be as much a consequence of good schools and innate student ability as an independent cause of student achievement. Students who find it easy to read are likely to report more books in their home, because they are more aware of them. Students attending an effective school are more likely to be good readers who are then aware of the resources at home. Countries that expect students to perform well on a national examination when they finish secondary school may induce higher rates of reading than countries that do not set clear standards for high school students.

In short, book buying and book reading can be as much a consequence of good schools that educate young people as a cause. If students learn to read, they consume more books and they are likely to be more aware of what’s available within the household. Further, a national culture that emphasizes learning and knowledge induces the acquisition of educational resources. Note that only 14 percent of Korean students come from few-book homes, as compared to 38 percent of U. S. students. Note that 31 percent of Korean students come from homes with many books, while only 18 percent of American students do. To Carnoy and Rothstein these data show that the lower class is nearly three times as large in the United States as in Korea. Even more bizarre, they want us to think the Korean upper class is nearly twice as big as that of the United States. If that is correct, one must expect a major migration from the United States to Korea.

If the number of books in the family home accurately measures a person’s social class, both you, dear reader, and I, myself, could now enjoy the pleasure of membership within the highest ranks of the upper, upper one percent of the social class distribution.

The researchers defend their methodology on the ground that no other indicator of social class improves the correlation between social class and achievement. That’s hardly surprising, as many studies have shown that family income is a poor predictor of achievement once other variables are taken into account. The failure of any other variable to add much to the achievement prediction simply shows that good reading habits are much more important to achievement than family income and other measures of social class. Schools can do something about good reading habits, and American schools need to be much better in this regard.

Poor Karl Marx. The stone marking his burial place has tipped over from the serious disturbance taking place underground. He proved to his own satisfaction and that of many others that social class was determined by one’s relationship to the means of production. Later, sociologists softened the understanding of social class so that it referred simply to household income. The grand old man suffered but at least the reference was to a material condition.

Now, Carnoy and Rothstein want us to believe social class is determined by one’s relationship to

There are bits and pieces of interest in the Carnoy-Rothstein study. But it hardly disturbs the conventional wisdom that something is wrong with the American educational system. For a more accurate account of what can be learned about the American school from a global perspective, let me suggest you enhance your social class status by purchasing a volume to be published later this year by the Brookings Institution Press under the title, Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann.