Inequality, Segregation and Education in America vs. the World

This is an excellent analysis of the PISA results, not written by me. It was published in Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post.

What international test scores really tell us:

Lessons buried in PISA report

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by William J. Mathis of Goshen, Vermont. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.. and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

By William J. Mathis

For the 27th, government officials have yet again been surprised, shocked and dismayed over the latest international test score rankings. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We have to see this as a very serious wake-up call.” Former Reagan education official Chester E. Finn Jr. reported that he was “kind of stunned” by the results of the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) results. In hyperbolic overdrive, he compared the results to Pearl Harbor and Sputnik.

The PISA tests were given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 nations and educational systems. Nine had higher average scores in reading, 17 in math, and 12 in science.

While ranking nations on test scores is a pretty sorry way to evaluate education systems, there is simply no reason to expect the results to have been any better than they were the last time we heard from this same chorus of surprised, shocked and dismayed pundits and politicians.

The reason is simple. Federal and state policymakers continue to embrace reforms that have little positive effect (if not downright negative effects) while ignoring reforms that make a difference. Buried within the PISA report is an analysis of educational systems that registered high test scores. Here are some of the less-reported findings:·

*The best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all children.

· *Students from low socio-economic backgrounds score a year behind their more affluent classmates. However, poorer students who are integrated with their more affluent classmates score strikingly higher. The difference is worth more than a year’s education.

· *In schools where students are required to repeat grades (such as with promotion requirements), the test scores are lower and the achievement gap is larger.

· *Tracking students (“ability grouping”) results in the gap becoming wider. The earlier the practice begins, the greater the gap. Poor children are more frequently shunted into the lower tracks.

· *Systems that transfer weak or disruptive students score lower on tests and on equity. One-third of the differences in national performance can be ascribed to this one factor.

· *Schools that have autonomy over curriculum, finances and assessment score higher.

· *Schools that compete for students (vouchers, charters, etc.) show no achievement score advantage.

· *Private schools do no better once family wealth factors are considered.

· *Students that attended pre-school score higher, even after more than 10 years.

As OECD Paris-based official Michael Davidson said in National Public Radio comments, “One of the striking things is the impact of social background on (U.S.) success.”

Twenty percent of U.S. performance was attributed to social background, which is far higher than in other nations. Davidson went on to point out that the United States just does not distribute financial resources or quality teachers equally. In a related finding, students from single-parent homes score much lower in the United States than they do in other countries. The 23-point difference is almost a year’s lack of growth.

Our Educational Policies

Unfortunately, federal and state policies do little to adopt these factors that other nations have found so successful. Countless finance studies show that funding across our schools is inequitable and inadequate. Federal and state governments vaguely note this concern but actions do not match the rhetoric. Our treatment of economically deprived students is to house them in segregated schools and shunt them into tracked programs.

A number of “get tough” social promotion policies have been adopted in states even though we know they are harmful. Despite a clear research consensus, early education is still politically disputed. Tracking students still remains the national norm even as we know it increases the achievement gap.

As the federal government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has become even more top-down and prescriptive, local schools become less autonomous and less like our successful international counterparts. Finally, the push for privatizing public education through charters, tuition tax credits, vouchers and the like does not result in better test scores and has the effect of increasing segregation, and the inequalities that lead to low test scores.

The American Dream

The American dream is that all children have an opportunity to be successful no matter how humble their roots. Thus, the most troubling finding in the PISA results is the lack of “resilience” among our children.

OECD measured resilience by looking at the scores of the least wealthy 25% of students and seeing what proportion of these students have academic scores in the top 25% of countries with similar socio-economic levels. In the highest scoring nations, 70 percent of the students are rated resilient.

The U. S. figure is less than 30%. In a nation which sees the top 1% controlling more than 50% of the nation’s wealth and the collapse of middle class jobs, we face the specter of building a country of social, economic and educational apartheid.

Secretary Duncan calls the PISA scores a serious wake-up call for our economy and “international competitiveness.” But that is merely to misunderstand economics and global competitiveness. Due to our pursuit of ineffective and ill-focused educational and economic reforms , the rude disturbance of our slumbers is the slamming of the door on the American dream.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think what people need to wake up to is 1- that the American Dream has been shrunk to the wee, tiny little grotesquely stunted kernal of an idea that it’s all about making as much money as you want. That’s it, that’s what freedom means and democracy/rule of law is ok only if it helps you in your wealth building. The commercialization of sports and entertainment and other glorification of wealth send that message out constantly and 2- Brown vs. Board of Education has failed. People who were opposed to integrated schools have moved away from them in all manner of ways some of which now manifest in charters and the like. The rate of growth in charter schools is quite rapidly taking us back to the same separate and inherently unequal situation B vs. Bd. was supposed to change.
    As for the PISA testing–to my knowledge America is the only country with a history of slavery like ours that is tested, right? If so, that makes a difference that doesn’t seem to be accounted for in PISA and, while I find the test and its results interesting, I don’t give it much weight in what we need to do here in the US. I do appreciate though, the author’s ferreting out what might be called “best practices” as I’m sure that will be very helpful to the sincere and well meaning.
    Thanks much for posting his analysis.

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  2. At the core of our problems is that U.S. schools are run by a “jockocracy” that shunts vast quantities of money intended for education to athletics, dumbs down the faculty by forcing principals to hire coach-educators who generally graduate with lower grades and often from inferior college and who focus on winning games rather than teaching. The influence of the jockocracy extends to facilities in that huge quantities of money intended for education end up financing athletic fields, stadia, and gyms. If, like Europe, American educators were required to graduate in the top 20% of their college classes, most coaches would be excluded. Finally, educational administrators at the high school level, come, almost exclusively, from coaching. It’s like rewarding the captain of the successful company softball team with a promotion to CEO.

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    • I agree that this is a problem, but it’s probably not the ‘core’. I suspect that this ‘jockocracy’ situation is less true in urban schools than it is in suburban and rural schools.

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