In yet another piece by a think tank on education [(Brown Center Chalkboard) “What International Test Scores Reveal About American Education” by Louis Serino, April 7, 2017] we are treated to a fairly typical display of data showing “some progress” but still typically mediocre results. (We are America, for Christ’s sake; shouldn’t we be #1!)
At the end of the article comes the important segment, which many will not read far enough to partake of:
“Why Do These Scores Matter?
Rankings based on international assessments are simple to understand—but they can also mislead. While researchers often shy away from using rankings in serious statistical analyses of test scores, they can have a substantial impact on political rhetoric, and consequently, education policy. Media outlets often take these lists and use them in headlines or sound bites, providing little context and furthering educational policy discussion that can often be misleading. To get the most value from U.S. participation in PISA and TIMSS, policymakers—and the public—should closely analyze the trends on both tests with caution and context.”
What almost all of these pieces leave out is a simple question: are we comparing apples to hand grenades? “Apples to oranges” is the usual forn of this cliché but that form instills some similarity in that the comparison is at least fruit to fruit, which is too close of a match for what these articles do.
To compare “fruit to fruit” we might ask “Has the U.S. ever done well in these international tests?” The answer is No! We have never, ever, ever done really well on those tests. There are many reasons for this but let me point out that our school children scored fairly mediocre in international math testing one year, the same year in which our school children won the prestigious and highly competitive Math Olympics. Also, since about the 1960’s we have had these “mediocre international test scores” but still had a university system the envy of the world, and innovation that was the envy of the world, an economy … well, you know.
In comparing “fruit to fruit” why should we compare how we did with how well Singapore or Shanghai did? Are they countries of similar population? (Hint: They aren’t even countries!) We break up high school football championships into myriad categories by size of the schools, but we compare a 300 million population country (us) with Singapore (pop. 5 million)? We are also compared negatively with Finland, an actual country, but one which has a population the same as Singapore’s. Sheesh!
And, what about breakouts? When we separate out some U.S. states, we can’t help but notice that Massachusetts does as well as any country on the list, all by itself. That is not often noted because you can’t claim that “public education is an abject failure” when there are examples galore of it kicking ass. Now there would be policy recommendations you could get from that one breakout factoid, maybe “Massachusetts seems to be able to make public education work for American students, lets all do it like Massachusetts.” That would be a viable policy recommendation if … if what Massachusetts does didn’t counter the narratives of some of the current crop of education reformers.
Would the automobile industry accept all of the input from think tanks, political groups, privately-funded reform groups, were they to insert themselves into the business of making cars? I think those entities would be more or less politely told to go suck eggs.
I think it is time for the education reformers to be told to go suck eggs. They do not know what they are doing. They do not know how to really analyze the data. And they have no special perspective you couldn’t get from a hired bean counter. They need to just go away and return education to the people closest to it.