Class Warfare Blog

July 6, 2013

Will We Ever Get to Rational Decision Making?

In my last post I re-posted a blog (Reflections on the Purpose of Education and the Manufactured Crisis) which addressed how we are actually doing vis-à-vis public education as compared to how the “reformers” say we are doing. Part of that post was a list of educational performances (in reading) by country. Here it is again:

Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009

  1. Korea 539
  2. Finland 536
  3. Canada 524
  4. New Zealand 521
  5. Japan 520
  6. Australia 515
  7. Netherlands 508
  8. Belgium 506
  9. Norway 503
  10. Estonia 501
  11. Switzerland 501
  12. Poland 500
  13. Iceland 500
  14. United States 500
  15. Sweden 497
  16. Germany 497
  17. Ireland 496
  18. France 496
  19. Denmark 495
  20. United Kingdom 494
  21. Hungary 494
  22. OECD average 493
  23. Portugal 489
  24. Italy 486
  25. Slovenia 483
  26. Greece 483
  27. Spain 481
  28. Czech Republic 478
  29. Slovak Republic 477
  30. Israel 474
  31. Luxembourg 472
  32. Austria 470
  33. Turkey 464
  34. Chile 449
  35. Mexico 425

[Note: data can be gleaned at ]

Actually, I restructured this list a tad and put it in the form that the critics of public education use it. I reaggregated all U.S. scores and then listed them by place in the “competition.” According to this listing, the U.S. isn’t even in the top ten! And since we know that we are No. 1 in all things, there is something terribly wrong. Obviously our educational system is letting us down, and since we absolutely must have a scapegoat, it is the teachers, no it is the teacher’s unions that is the problem!

“According to this listing, the U.S. isn’t even in the top ten!
And since we know that we are No. 1 in all things, there is something
terribly wrong. Obviously our educational system is letting us down!

Let’s look at the list as it was originally posted:

Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009
[United States, Asian students 541]
Korea 539
Finland 536
[United States, White students 525]
Canada 524
New Zealand 521
Japan 520
Australia 515
Netherlands 508
Belgium 506
Norway 503
Estonia 501
Switzerland 501
Poland 500
Iceland 500
United States (overall) 500
Sweden 497
Germany 497
Ireland 496
France 496
Denmark 495
United Kingdom 494
Hungary 494
OECD average 493
Portugal 489
Italy 486
Slovenia 483
Greece 483
Spain 481
Czech Republic 478
Slovak Republic 477
Israel 474
Luxembourg 472
Austria 470
[United States, Hispanic students 466]
Turkey 464
Chile 449
[United States, Black students 441]
Mexico 425
[Note: data can be gleaned at ]

Here the scores of U.S. students were disaggregated into a number of subsets: Asian-Americans, Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks. Note that Asian-American kids did better than Korean kids or Japanese kids. Where do these Asian-American kids go to school? There surely must be a network of private schools catering to them for their performance to be that good. Actually, I think you will find that the Asian-American kids are going to our public schools. Consequently, the education afforded them, at least when it comes to reading, is as good as anywhere else in the world.

So the real question is: why aren’t whites, Hispanics, and Blacks doing as well?

This is not a complicated question and it has been answered. The answer is not complicated. The major components to the answer to this question are: lack of hard work, poverty, and low expectations. Virtually every high school in the U.S. “tracks” students. If nothing else, higher performing students are encouraged to take more difficult classes. Lower performing students are encouraged to take less difficult classes. (Think of the large numbers of college athletes who major in sociology. Expectations of their performances on the athletic fields are high, in the classroom, not so much. In my four years of college athletics, I was the only chemistry major participating in varsity sports in those schools that I could see.)

There is no faster way to lower performance than to expect less from your students. Most of you know that I am a former teacher. In retirement, I spend much of my time coaching (archery) and it is axiomatic that if expectations are too high or too low, performance suffers. Similarly if there is too little practice, performance suffers. If my athletes can’t afford proper nutrition or proper equipment, performance suffers. This is true in all sports. There is no disagreement.

So, Asian-Americans come out on top in our U.S. educational system because of: very hard work, their families make sure they have what they need to succeed (food, sleep, safety, a place to study, computers, etc.), and they have very high expectations for their children. Children of poverty often have only one parent at home who often works more than one job but still can’t afford all of the physical, emotional, and intellectual support their children need to succeed at high levels. Then the schools inflict the ultimate insult: low expectations.

There are other influences, but these are all that are need to explain gross performance disparities.

So, if these were to be removed? What then?

Let me tell you a story about an actual experiment. A mathematics professor at University of California, Berkeley, one of the most prominent universities in the world, was looking for an educational project to research. His name was Uri Treisman. He decided to explore why the performance of Black students in Calculus classes was so poor. Their average grade and failure rates were, he thought, way out of line. But, you see, the Black students going to U.C. Berkeley and taking Calculus were no slouches. They had high GPAs (they got into the University on merit). They were generally from upper middle class families. In other words, they had no excuses.

So, Dr. Treisman started by asking the faculty why they thought there was such a disparity between the Asian and Black students. The answers he got ranged from “socioeconomic factors” to veiled racism (yes, in the liberal bastion of Berkeley). This still didn’t make sense, so he launched an investigation. He actually tracked the behaviors of Asian and Black students and discovered that the main difference was that Asian students studied in groups while Black students studied alone. (Consider that no “street cred” comes from hanging out in the library.) Students who study alone have no support group, no peer pressure, and have to do everything for themselves. It is a real handicap.

So, Dr. Treisman launched a study group project for Black Calculus students. To avoid the stigma of other “remedial” support groups, he called it an honors project and required attendance and extra work. The Black students attending were placed in groups, coached on how to work in a group, and were given lots of extra work to do.

Three years into the project, the Black student’s GPA in Calculus was the same as the Asian students. (These students did not have to contend with either poverty or low expectations, just working harder and smarter.) If that weren’t enough, he repeated the project with Hispanic students, and with a few tweaks, got the same result.

People, there is no mystery here. Public education ain’t broke. Could it be better? Yes. What couldn’t be. Could teachers be better? Yes, who couldn’t be. So, shouldn’t teachers be evaluated frequently and their pay be based on their success, like everybody else? No. Because everybody else’s pay is not determined that way (another conservative meme), so neither should teachers. The Quality Movement has shown us that you don’t improve quality by increasing the number of inspections. This is the equivalent of expecting the programming on television to become more intelligent because you turned up the “brightness.” You improve quality by investing in processes and empowerment of employees to do a better job.

So, when will we get to a rational discussion of our “issues,” a discussion that includes reality, including the motives of “for profit” agencies criticizing the public sector and a discussion of the motives of certain “reformers?” In this era of debates consisting of countering ideological claims lobbed from the trenches and facts be dammed, I am not holding my breath.

December 24, 2011

Either that Tie Goes, or . . .

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 1:57 pm
Tags: , , , ,

The Chicago Tribune followed up on a story they ran about this time last year. It was about a guy who wore a tie to work as a car salesman just after the Green Bay Packers defeated the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship football game. The tie was a Packers tie and the owner didn’t like it one bit. The employee was ordered to take it off, refused, and was fired (for team disloyalty?). The follow-up was that the guy was hired by another car dealership not far away and, since then, has been employee of the month five times and has sold over 150 cars. People even come in to the dealership asking for “The Packer Guy.”

The reason I share this story with you is that conservatives are always offering as a solution for our public school problems that principals should be able to fire “bad teachers” whenever they want. The above example is indicative of that kind of power. A guy gets fired over a perceived, but not real, problem (guy wearing Packer’s tie in Bear’s Country). Conservatives often argue that only the boss can know the whole situation and the guy may have had other problems you don’t know about and it might not have been just the tie. Well, the guy’s performance at the dealership down the road indicates the firing boss may have shot himself in the foot by ridding himself of a very good employee for no good reason. Ah, say the conservatives, “the market corrects itself, you see.”

I have no problem with the first boss firing the guy for his tie, a nasty look, or any other reason, if he owns the business and if he is the one at risk for making a bad decision (he was). But school principals? C’mon. They have no skin in the game. They are just other employees of the same boss (the public) and no more well-trained to make hiring and firing decisions that the people they are supervising. And back when principals had the power to hire and fire there were enough incidents of principals firing people and then hiring their nephews to bring into question the effectiveness of such a move.

Bureaucracies exist for reasons. Due process exists for reasons. In the public sphere, we need to be reshaping our bureaucracies so they are more effective, not doing away with them and appointing mini-dictators (the counter example of The State of Michigan should suffice as proof).

For starters, how about a definition of teacher effectiveness? How about a coherent policy on what to do with marginally ineffective teachers? I have no problem with firing ineffective teachers, just the basis needs to be something more than a tie.

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