Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Teaching for America

Stephen Krashen Comment [sent to the New York Times:

Tony Wagner, Arne Duncan, and Thomas Friedman ("Teaching for America," Nov. 20) agree that Denmark, Finland, and Sweden outperform the US because their teachers graduate in top one-third of their classes

There is another explanation: Poverty. The percentage of children living in poverty in Denmark is 2.4%, in Finland, 2.8%, and in Sweden 4.2%. In the US the percentage is 21.9. Poverty means poor nutrition, substandard health care, environmental toxins, and little access to books; all have a strong negative impact on school success.

Middle class American children attending well-funded schools outscore nearly all other countries on international tests. Our overall scores are unspectacular because we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty.

Increasing pressure on teacher education, teachers, and parents will not improve achievement, but if we can protect children from the effects of poverty, American tests scores will be at the top of the world.

Stephen Krashen


UNICEF, 2005. Child Poverty in Rich Countries, 2005. Innocenti Report Card No.6. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence. AvaIlable at: www.unicef.org/irc

Malnutrition, hunger: Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit; Coles, G. 2008/2009. Hunger, academic success, and the hard bigotry of indifference. Rethinking Schools 23 (2).

Health care: Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.

Environmental toxins: Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit; Martin, M. 2004. A strange ignorance: The role of lead poisoning in âfailing schools.â http://www.azsba.org/lead.htm.

Access to books: Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann and Westport: Libraries Unlimited; Neuman, S.B. & Celano, D. 2001. Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 1, 8-26; Di Loreto, C., and Tse, L. 1999. Seeing is believing: Disparity in books in two Los Angeles area public libraries. School Library Quarterly 17(3): 31-36.

Prof. Paul Thomas comments [sent to the New York Times:]

Simplistic manipulation of data:

Thomas L. Friedman's commentary on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's November 4 speech (The New York Times, November 20, 2010) reveals an ironic lesson that many people have failed to learn from Mark Twain's apt quip from the turn of the twentieth century:

"Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: "'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.'"1

Like Secretary Duncan's August 25, 2010, speech in Little Rock, Arkansas, Friedman proceeds to reinforce Duncan's claims about education in the U.S. without mentioning poverty a single time. As well, Friedman emphasizes a "few data points" offered by Duncan as evidence.

Before examining the charges offered by both Friedman and Duncan, let's look briefly at a state-to-state comparison here in the U.S. to illustrate the folly of making sweeping claims about educational quality with a "few data points."

Two Southern states, Mississippi and South Carolina share both a long history of high poverty rates (Mississippi at over 30% and SC at over 25%) and reputations as poor schools systems. Yet, when we compare the SAT scores from Mississippi in 2010 (CR 566, M 548, W 552 for a 1666 total) to SAT scores in SC (CR 484, 495, 468 for a 1447 total), we may be compelled to charge that Mississippi has overcome a higher poverty rate than SC to achieve, on average, 219 points higher.

This conclusion, based on a "few data points," is factually accurate, but ultimate false once we add just one more data point, the percentage of students taking the exam: 3% of Mississippi seniors took the exam while 66% of SC took the exam. A fact of statistics tells us that SC's large percentage is much closer to the normal distribution of the all seniors in the state, thus must be lower than a uniquely superior population, such as in Mississippi.

In short, the SAT averages used to compare Mississippi and SC tell us little of value--and thus, the claims made by Friedman based on the speech by Duncan.

The data points praised by Friedman and used by Duncan--drop-out rates, the relationship between education and economic success, and the comparison of teacher pools among countries--appear like SAT scores to be valid data points to draw conclusions about the quality of nations' schools. But the full picture proves that assumption to be false.

One of the most damning failures of the argument is that rigorous research by Gerald Bracey has shown us little positive correlations between measured educational quality and the strength of any nation's economy. This is good political discourse, but the evidence isn't there.

The call to recruit the best and brightest students (as other top countries do, they always add) is also a compelling charge that falls apart when placed against evidence. Studies, again, have failed to show that such a simple process in fact achieves what we would expect.

Finally, the persistent refrain praising Finland and Denmark as "countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills" offers yet another simplistic conclusion (such as the one above about Mississippi) that is compelling but incomplete.

Finland and Denmark (according to studies from UNICEF in 2005 and 2007) have childhood poverty rates of 2.8% and 2.4% respectively, while the U.S. childhood poverty rate is 21.9%.

Further, Finland's entire population is only 5 million people, while the U.S. school system educates 50 million children with 3.2 million teachers. In short, as with Mississippi and SC, the full picture about populations reveals a "few data points" as being more about misleading than illuminating.

Do we need better schools and do our children deserve the best teachers in every classroom possible? Of course. No one refutes either of these statements.

But these lofty goals cannot be attained as long as we refuse to acknowledge the historical pattern of social failures that are reflected in (and too often exacerbated by) our schools, such as high drop-out rates for racial minorities and children living in poverty.

Throughout the world, the full picture of any nation's schools reflect the social realities of that country; when schools appear to be failures, the facts show that social failures (the conditions of children's lives outside of school) are driving the educational data.

And we certainly will never address these social failures of the truth about our schools if our political leaders and media voices refuse even to say the word "poverty" while languishing in the simplistic manipulation of data that condemns statistics to Twain's bitter assessment over a century ago.

1 Twain's ascribing the quote to Disraeli appears to be inaccurate, but Twain's actual quote is accurate.

By Thomas L. Friedman

When I came to Washington in 1988, the cold war was ending and the hot beat was national security and the State Department. If I were a cub reporter today, I'd still want to be covering the epicenter of national security -- but that would be the Education Department. President Obama got this one exactly right when he said that whoever "out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow." The bad news is that for years now we've been getting out-educated. The good news is that cities, states and the federal government are all fighting back. But have no illusions. We're in a hole.

Here are few data points that the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, offered in a Nov. 4 speech: "One-quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time. Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year. ... One of the more unusual and sobering press conferences I participated in last year was the release of a report by a group of top retired generals and admirals. Here was the stunning conclusion of their report: 75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit." America's youth are now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment.

"Other folks have passed us by, and we're paying a huge price for that economically," added Duncan in an interview. "Incremental change isn't going to get us where we need to go. We've got to be much more ambitious. We've got to be disruptive. You can't keep doing the same stuff and expect different results."

Duncan, with bipartisan support, has begun several initiatives to energize reform -- particularly his Race to the Top competition with federal dollars going to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. Maybe his biggest push, though, is to raise the status of the teaching profession. Why?

Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of "The Global Achievement Gap," explains it this way. There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

If you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes. As Wagner put it, "They took teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge-worker's job. They have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best."

Duncan disputes the notion that teachers' unions will always resist such changes. He points to the new "breakthrough" contracts in Washington, D.C., New Haven and Hillsborough County, Fla., where teachers have embraced higher performance standards in return for higher pay for the best performers.

"We have to reward excellence," he said. "We've been scared in education to talk about excellence. We treated everyone like interchangeable widgets. Just throw a kid in a class and throw a teacher in a class." This ignored the variation between teachers who were changing students' lives, and those who were not. "If you're doing a great job with students," he said, "we can't pay you enough."

That is why Duncan is starting a "national teacher campaign" to recruit new talent. "We have to systemically create the environment and the incentives where people want to come into the profession. Three countries that outperform us -- Singapore, South Korea, Finland -- don't let anyone teach who doesn't come from the top third of their graduating class. And in South Korea, they refer to their teachers as 'nation builders.'"

Duncan's view is that challenging teachers to rise to new levels -- by using student achievement data in calculating salaries, by increasing competition through innovation and charters -- is not anti-teacher. It's taking the profession much more seriously and elevating it to where it should be. There are 3.2 million active teachers in America today. In the next decade, half (the baby boomers) will retire. How we recruit, train, support, evaluate and compensate their successors "is going to shape public education for the next 30 years," said Duncan. We have to get this right.

Wagner thinks we should create a West Point for teachers: "We need a new National Education Academy, modeled after our military academies, to raise the status of the profession and to support the R.& D. that is essential for reinventing teaching, learning and assessment in the 21st century."

All good ideas, but if we want better teachers we also need better parents -- parents who turn off the TV and video games, make sure homework is completed, encourage reading and elevate learning as the most important life skill. The more we demand from teachers the more we have to demand from students and parents. That's the Contract for America that will truly ensure our national security.

— Thomas L. Friedman
New York Times





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.