Compare ‘Education Reform’ to Ineffective but Profitable Quick-Weight-Loss Schemes

John Viall compares the past 15 years of education ‘reform’ to the past 30 or 40 years of completely counterproductive weight-loss schemes — in both cases, the results are exactly contrary to what they were promised to be. In one case, we can see that America’s obesity rates are some of the worst in the world. In the other, we have certainly not ‘raced to the top’ on TIMMS, PISA, or any other international test, despite all of promises by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

He concludes (I added some color):

“For a sixth time the PISA test was administered in 2015.

Now, 15-year-olds from seventy countries and educational systems took the test. How did U. S. students fare?
The envelope please.
In reading U. S. students scored 497. In other words, after fifteen years of school reform and tens of billions wasted, reading scores were still down seven points.
Fifteen years of listening to blowhard politicians—and U. S. students averaged 470 in math, a depressing 23-point skid.
Surely, all that meddling must have done some good? No. Science scores averaged 496, still down three points.
Fifteen years of diet plans that couldn’t possibly fail and, metaphorically, we were all just a little more fat.
PISA scores had been the foundation on which all school reform was built; and after all these years, America’s 15-year-olds were scoring 33 points worse.

More on International School Comparisons by Bob Somerby of Daily Howler

Here is the Howler’s Part 2 analyzing the results of the latest TIMMS and PIRLS international comparisons of 4th and 8th grade students. He makes the point that over and over again, US newspapers and editorial staff keep complaining about how poorly American students do in these international rankings, when the facts are exactly the opposite.

A quote:

Nations outscored in reading by U.S. fourth-graders, 2011 PIRLS (partial list):
Denmark, Croatia, Taiwan, Ireland, England, Canada, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Israel, Portugal, Hungary, Slovak Republic, New Zealand, Slovenia, Austria, Lithuania, Australia, Poland, France, Spain, Norway, Belgium (Flemish region)

Really? American fourth-graders outscored their peers in England, Canada, Germany, France? In Australia, Spain, Italy and Taiwan—and in a host of smaller European nations? 

Would a reader gain any idea of this fact from reading this gloomy AP report? Would that reader ever guess that U.S. fourth-graders were outscored by their peers in only three actual nations, plus Hong Kong and Northern Ireland, even as they kicked the keisters of fourth-graders spanning the globe?

and here is his first article in the series:

Here he presents duelling headlines from different newspapers:

Gloomy headlines about the new scores:
Associated Press, December 11: US students far from first in math, science
New York Times, December 11: U.S. Students Still Lag Globally In Math and Science, Tests Show
Washington Post, December 11: U.S. still trails Asia in student test scores


Upbeat headlines about the new scores:
USA Today, December 11: USA’s schools move up in international rankings
Christian Science Monitor, December 11: How does US compare in math, science, reading? 
Younger students do better 
Two international studies show fourth- and eighth-grade scores in math, science, and reading in 2011. In the US, there’s no cause for alarm, or celebration.


Part 4 from the Daily Howler: Black US students did quite well on TIMMS

This is Bob Somerby’s part 4 on the international academic comparisons of elementary and middle school students.

Much to the utter consternation of the general myths, African-American students in numerous American states beat most other nations’ average scores. Here are the details:


Part 4—Disaggregation and more: American students did surprisingly well on last year’s international tests.

That is especially true in reading, where American fourth-graders, the only grade tested, pretty much kicked the ass of the world. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/19/12.

Why was this performance “surprising?” Let us count two ways:

In part, the performance may seem surprising because so much effort has been made, in recent years, to denigrate American teachers, students and schools. Everybody knows this script—and this script was extended in last week’s reporting about the new test scores.

To its credit, USA Today broke the mold, focusing on some of our students’ surprising success. But in the New York Times, the AP and the Washington Post, gloom and doom prevailed again, just as it has been scripted.

American students did surprisingly well. The American people weren’t told.

Continue reading

How the US press continues to parrot the ‘party line’ that American students suck, despite the facts

This excellent post on how perhaps US schools aren’t so bad after all comes from The Daily Howler by Bob Somerby. He does a great service by putting together the points I was trying to make when I showed graphs and figures from the TIMMS report showing how well the US did. His summary is much better put-together than mine. Good job, Bob!

FOOLED ABOUT SCHOOLS: Fools for Finland!

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2012Part 5—Good news outscored by script: How well did American students do on last year’s international tests?That can’t be easily answered. In reading, American students scored very near the top of the world. Among the large nations which took part, only Russia outscored the U.S.

In reading, American students outscored the vast bulk of the world! Unless you read major American papers, where this success was largely obscured.

In math, American students did somewhat less well—and without any question, a fairly small group of Asian nations tend to outscore the world by significant margins in math. That said, here’s a surprise:

In fourth-grade and eighth-grade math, American scores were “not measurably different” from the scores of students in Finland.

We mention Finland for an obvious reason. In the past decade, this small, middle-class, unicultural nation has been all the rage in America’s low-scoring press corps. Its strong performance on international tests has been a constant source of commentary from journalists who don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

That’s why you might think it would count as news when the U.S. came close to matching Finland on last year’s international tests. Indeed, Finland was walloped by some U.S. states—states which took part in last year’s testing as independent “education systems.”

Continue reading …

In Other Countries, Kids in Wealthier Schools Do Better Than Kids in Poorer Schools. Huge Surprise, Right?

Released today, the latest international studies of students in math, science, and reading (TIMMS and PIRLS) actually make interesting reading. You can find the the math report (TIMMS) here and the reading and literacy report here. They are pretty long.

Unfortunately and as usual, the few on-line and printed reports ABOUT the studies seem to be cherry-picking data to find what they want — much like pundits pontificating and bloviating on TV the exact same ‘talking points’, whether there’s any evidence for what they believe or not. I just saw a headline: “More Bad News for US Students.”

At least I try to look at the data itself.

A brief quote from the TIMMS ‘executive summary’, which is as far as I had gotten when I first wrote this yesterday morning:

Home Resources Strongly Related to Mathematics Achievement

Research consistently shows a strong positive relationship between achievement and indicators of socioeconomic status, such as parents’ or caregivers’ level of education. At the fourth and sixth grades, TIMSS used the parents’ reports on the availability of key home resources to create the Home Resources for Learning scale, including parents’ education, parents’ occupation, books in the home, and study supports. Internationally, on average, the 17 percent of students with Many Resources had substantially higher mathematics achievement than the nine percent with Few Resources—a 119-point difference. However, 
almost three-quarters of the fourth grade students (74%) had Some Resources.
At the eighth and ninth grades, TIMSS asked the students themselves about their parents’  education, books in the home, and study supports, with similar results. Internationally, the twelve percent of eighth grade students with Many Resources had the highest average achievement, the two-thirds with Some Resources had the next highest achievement,  and the one-fifth with Few Resources had the lowest average achievement.

Note that this is in ALL of the countries: kids from poorer backgrounds do less well in school, and the inverse: wealthier kids do better in school. All over the world, not just in the USA.


Here are the tables that accompanied that text:



Now that I’ve had a bit more time to look at the data, I see that at the fourth grade, I can look at reported differences between average scores at schools where the principal says the kids come from wealthier families, and average scores at schools where the principal says the students come from more disadvantaged families. It’s one way of estimating what the famous rich-poor achievement gap is like in various nations, but we should be cautious with the data: it all has pretty large standard deviations according to TIMMS itself, meaning that the various bars in this graph are likely to be, in reality, much higher or much lower than this chart (which I made using the data in exhibit 5.3, page 514).

grade 4 rich poor schools gap TIMMS


If this information is accurate, the US has a somewhat larger ‘math poverty’ gap than most other countries, but it’s by no means the worst. And it also shows that lots of other countries actually have similar achievement gaps in 4th grade math between two groups of schools:

Quoting from the report:

… the More Affluent schools had more than one-fourth of their students from affluent home backgrounds and not more than one-fourth from disadvantaged home backgrounds, and the More Disadvantaged schools had the reverse situation. The other schools were “in between.” Internationally, the students were distributed relatively equally across the three types of schools. On average, across countries at the fourth grade, 36 percent of the students attended schools with relatively more affluent students than disadvantaged students, and students in these schools had the highest average achievement (508). At the other end of the range, 30 percent of the students attended schools with relatively more disadvantaged students than affluent students, and students in these schools had the lowest average achievement (470). Although this overall achievement pattern was observed in most countries and benchmarking participants, there was a wide variation among participants in the percentages of students attending the three different economic categories of schools.


  1. The sky isn’t falling,
  2. US schools are neither the best nor the worst in the world.
  3. This data (like most educational dat) is actually quite fuzzy.
  4. All around the world, it appears that wealthier kids these days generally tend to do better in math at the 4th grade than poorer kids.
Published in: on December 12, 2012 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Sky Is Not Falling

Two things are for sure when you read the tables and graphs in the latest TIMMS report, released today:

(1) The sky is NOT falling;


(2) This report gives no evidence of a major educational crisis in math education in the USA. On the contrary.

In fact, of all the many countries listed, US students’s average scores rank among the top 20-30%  of all the countries listed. If the long-term trends mean anything at all, American students are consistently improving, going back to 1995, well before the current round of top-down, billionaire-backed educational “rephorms’ began being imposed on American public schools.

If you don’t believe me, then look at these tables, copied directly from the TIMMS report, and see for yourself.

In all of them, I drew a red line around the scores of US students to make it easier to find.

This first table shows the distribution of math scores for 4th graders, ranked from high to low.

Notice first of all that the US is #11 out of about 50, which puts it at the 78th percentile, or definitely in the top quarter of all nations participating.

If you look carefully at the smeared-looking band to the right of the names of the countries, and if you read the legend, you see that EVERY SINGLE NATION has a significant gap between its best-achieving students and its lowest-achieving students. Including the USA. It does not seem like our gap is particularly wide or particularly narrow in comparison with the gaps in other countries. It looks to me like Romania’s might be the widest, and the gap in the Netherlands between the top and bottom students appears to be the narrowest.  We also ‘beat’ a lot of supposedly high-achieving, wealthy countries: Germany, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand…

So, not too bad, overall. No sign of crisis here.

distribution of math 4th ach international


In this next graph, the US is #9 out of the same 50 countries in performance at various benchmarks in 4th grade math. We have 13% of our fourth graders reaching something that the TIMMS calls their ‘advanced’ benchmark; 47% of our students reaching a ‘high’ benchmark; 88% of the students reaching the ‘intermediate’ benchmark; and 96% of our students passing the ‘low’ benchmark. As you can see, while there are some countries scoring better than the US, we beat the vast majority of them.

4th grade int'l benchmarks math


This next graph/chart shows how 4th grade students in the USA and a few other countries are doing over time, going back to 1995. As you can see, American fourth graders’ scores have been going up as assessed by this test, modestly but significantly, during the past 16 years, but there was not much change from 1995 to 2003. BTW: Finland’s scores fell by quite a bit, and there is sure to be some head-scratching there.



4th grade trends in USA+SVE+SLO+TUN



The next two graphs show how 4th-grade math students in of the nations with enough prior scores have been doing over time. Note that in the US, we went from 9% of our fourth-grade students being ‘advanced’ in 1995, to only 7% ‘advanced’ in 2003, to 10% in that category in 2007, to 11% ‘advanced’ last year. The percentages of American fourth-grade math students reaching the ‘high’ benchmark went from 37% to 35% to 40% to 47% — which seems pretty decent to me.








4th grade int'l benchmarks math - trends over time

This last graph is a continuation of the last one, but it shows what percentage of students in the various countries reached or exceeded the ‘Intermediate’ and ‘low’ benchmarks.

4th grade intermed + low benchmarks over time

Again: The sky is not falling, and if we look at these results, there is no sign of a crisis in US elementary math education.

[Let me know (via comments) if you need more explication of what these graphs imply.]

Published in: on December 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm  Comments (7)  
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US students are actually doing pretty well, compared to world!

We’ve all heard the continuing refrain from various politicians and “experts” that US schools are failing, that American students aren’t learning anything, that our schools are terrible compared to the rest of the world, and therefore we need to dismantle our public schools by one method or another.


Here is some evidence from the latest international TIMMS scores in the 4th and 8th grades. The data follows.

The red scores are from nations whose students do significantly better than American students.

The part in white shows nations whose students do about the same as American students.

The part in pink shows nations whose students score significantly worse than American students.

2007 timms us comparisonNotice that American students IMPROVED from 4th grade to the 8th grade, in comparison to the other countries – exactly the opposite of conventional wisdom.

And think about whether you would want your child, or any child you know, to have to undergo the pressure-cooker, totally conformist, force-fed type of education that they have in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, or Singapore. At least in America, students learn how to question authority and think for themselves. There is precious little of that in other school systems, based on my own personal experience.

Hmm – maybe that’s why we are being bombarded with the idea that Japanese, Chinese, and Korean schools are so wonderful: students there are essentially NEVER expected to question anything, and are trained to exhibit no independent thinking at all. Maybe that’s why powerful corporations and right-wing forces here in the US want to re-make US schools, even though they are, overall, doing a pretty good job?

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