Tuesday, April 09, 2013

U.S. Schools Have Always Kinda... Sucked

Thomas Friedman has noticed that, based upon international tests, U.S. students lag behind their international peers. I don't want to diminish the importance of education, improved schools, improved pedagogy, universal education and the like. I don't want to assume that the factors that have helped the U.S. succeed in the past, despite problems with public education, will continue into the future. But....
The bad news is that U.S. middle-class students are badly lagging their peers globally. "Many assume that poverty in America is pulling down the overall U.S. scores," the report said, "but when you divide each nation into socioeconomic quarters, you can see that even America’s middle-class students are falling behind not only students of comparable advantage, but also more disadvantaged students in several other countries."
That's not new. That's "same as it ever was".

Part of the problem, at least to me, is obvious: On the whole, our nation does not value education. We give it a great deal of lip service, but at the end of the day we're not willing to open our pocketbooks to better fund public schools, we're more interested in cutting teacher pay, autonomy and benefits than in creating an environment that will attract the best candidates to teaching as a profession, and we get much more excited when Johnny makes it onto a varsity sports team than when he enters the science fair - and while the football team gets equipment, coaches, dedicated facilities, the science fair gets one day with the gym filled with folding tables. We have a range of taunts and epithets to direct at kids who excel academically. If you control for parental focus on academics, as opposed to parental income, you'll find a lot of academic achievers in this country.

Part of the problem, though, may be that there's not actually a problem. At least insofar as the middle class is concerned. We, as a nation, are presently obsessed over early childhood education - how much academic material can we cram into kindergarten and first grade. But kids who go to schools that follow the Waldorf method don't get much exposure to academics before the age of seven, and they do fine. It is reasonable to infer that when kids come from families that value education, that read, they catch up. And while I think it would be better to offer a more rigorous high school education than what we see in a lot of U.S. schools, to allow kids to push themselves without taking A.P. courses or taking classes at the local community college, the kids who aren't pushed into getting top PISA scores go on to college and catch up.

The focus on PISA reminds me of the talk about how not enough students are pursuing STEM degrees, even though the evidence suggests a significant surplus of STEM graduates as compared to job openings. By way of example, my brothers both went out of their way to avoid math in high school, and again in college. Their PISA scores would have been pretty awful. One is now a lawyer (a profession in which it is easy to avoid even the most basic math), and the other is doing very well working for a Fortune 50 company. That should come as no big surprise to Friedman - I doubt that the math requirements of his job often exceed having his word processor tabulate the word count of a draft column.

Something else that's interesting about PISA, particularly given Friedman's emphasis on China, is Professor Yong Zhao's observation that nations with the highest PISA scores tend to have low scores on measures of "perceived entrepreneurial capabilities". That is to say, if you put too much emphasis on having students score well on PISA mathematics, you may do so at the expense of giving them the opportunity to learn the real world skills necessary to drive business success. I'm not advocating that we choose - I would like to find a way to do both - but there's a price to chasing the highest test scores, while the reward may turn out not to be improved business competitiveness. Professor Zhao is also not enamored with the notion of chasing after China's test-driven model of education, a system from which he graduated.

There's another cost to high stakes testing, one that was revealed in the D.C. schools under the Leadership of Michelle Rhee: If you put enough emphasis on testing, you create a huge incentive to cheat. I once followed a link to a Chinese website that sold aids for cheating on exams - and some of the stuff would inspire jealousy even in the James Bond character, Q. Chinese students are reported to have a relatively cavalier attitude toward cheating. Everybody does it, right? But hey - it does inspire a certain form of entrepreneurship....
So what’s the secret of the best-performing schools? It’s that there is no secret. The best schools, the study found, have strong fundamentals and cultures that believe anything is possible with any student: They "work hard to choose strong teachers with good content knowledge and dedication to continuous improvement." They are "data-driven and transparent, not only around learning outcomes, but also around soft skills like completing work on time, resilience, perseverance — and punctuality." And they promote "the active engagement of our parents and families."
Another trip to the mission statement generator? Oddly, no mention of start times, but then the mission statement says nothing about choosing the correct data.

So yes, let's take Friedman's suggestion and "raise the bar". I expect Friedman will be telling us where we will get the money for the type of teachers and schools he envisions in... well, probably not his next column, but we can hope it won't take more than a Friedman Unit or two. While we wait we should consider which bars we should be raising - as we don't want an effort to improve the nation's schools to turn into a trip hazard.

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