Getting the Word Out
Countering the fear mongers about American Public Schools
Publication Date: 2009-04-14
This is the text of an invited address given by Gerald R. Bracey at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego on Tuesday, April 14, 2009. Dr. Bracey was invited to give the "Charles Degarmo Invited Lecture" to AERA. Dr. Bracey explained in an e-mail two days before he delivered the address,"What follows are the first few pages of an invited address I will give at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego on Tuesday. The pages quote a lot of statistics from President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan and then show that the statistics are all wrong. It pains me to do this since I campaigned for Obama, canvassed for him, donated to the campaign and, of course, voted for him. But listening to what he says about education, it is easy to see why Diane Ravitch said that in education, Obama is a third term for Bush and Duncan is Margaret Spellings in drag.
Looking at the Manufactured Crisis from a longer historical point of view
But, according to the people who got us into this mess, in order for the country to get healthy again, the schools have to shape up. I actually do think this could be a failure of the schools.
ItĂ˘€™s a failure of the B schools that neglected to instill in their newly minted MBAĂ˘€™s a proper sense of ethics and an appropriate understanding of the relationship between risk and return.
Looking again at The Manufactured Crisis, I found all the myths that David [Berliner] and Bruce [Biddle] debunked [in their book The Manufactured Crisis] are still hanging around. They are just overlaid with another 15 years worth of data. I have a different perspective, plus the advantage of those 15 years of data. David and Bruce took each myth and demolished it individually. They organized their debunking around a collection of myths. I take a temporal approach. I organize around time and, while "A Nation At Risk," their signal event, was important, I think it all started earlier.
Bashing public schools in the USA since World War II
I see bashing schools as a longstanding predisposition that really took its current form just after World War II and IĂ˘€™d like to lay out today how that predisposition became an everyday habit. While Arthur Newman in his 1978 book, In Defense of the American Public School, has a section on Ă˘€śThe always abundant criticism,Ă˘€ť his reports are largely episodic into the Thirties and then he skips to the 70Ă˘€™s. In so doing, I think he misses the most important period of the rise of scapegoating.
Accelerating criticism of the schools accompanied the accelerating weapons and space races that began in late 1940s and intensified in the early 1950Ă˘€™s. The post-World War II critics can be roughly separated into two groups, although there was, no doubt some overlap. One group of detractors simply thought the schools were bad. Another worried about the Communists attempts to gain control of the world and perceived the schools as the perfect instrument to infiltrate to attain this objective. Many people in the Fifties still had fresh memories of what HitlerĂ˘€™s German Youth Movement had done to promote Nazism and they feared a similar movement in public schools.
The early Fifties produced articles like Albert LyndĂ˘€™s Quackery in the Public Schools, and books like Mortimer SmithĂ˘€™s The Diminished Mind, Rudolf FleschĂ˘€™s Why Johnny CanĂ˘€™t Read, and most influential of all at the time, Arthur BestorĂ˘€™s Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Public Schools.
Note the use of the word Ă˘€śRetreat.Ă˘€ť I think this is the first title ever that suggested that things had once upon a time been better, that there had been some golden age of American public education which we had somehow tarnished. In 1956, Bestor was interviewed by U. S. News & World Report. The interview ran under the headline, "We Are Less Educated than Fifty Years Ago."
Bestor made some remarkable historical errors, mostly by failing to take into account differences in the proportion of students finishing high school in 1906 vs. 1956 and changes in the socioeconomic status of those getting a diploma over that 50-year period. I say remarkable because Bestor was a historian and youĂ˘€™d think a historian would have noticed such things.
The other set of worriers fretted that the Russians had more "manpower"Ă˘€"a word that came into use about this time--than we did. CIA Director, Allen Dulles, claimed that between 1950 and 1960, the Russians would produce 1.2 million scientists and engineers while we churned out a meager 90,000. One wonders, given recent failures of CIA intelligence, how Dulles obtained his numbers but the conclusion was clear: More scientists, more engineers, that would save the day. Sound familiar? CanĂ˘€™t help but digress to mention that current research indicates that we have three new homegrown scientists and engineers for every new positions and that 65% of them seek work in other fields within two years.
I digress just a moment to also note that this era was a period in which the U. S. was moving rapidly towards universal secondary education and some people simply worried that the schools would get dumbed down, to use todayĂ˘€™s phrase. Others worried about the impact of civil rights on education quality. BestorĂ˘€™s book appeared one year before the Supreme CourtĂ˘€™s Brown v. Board decision and only two years before Martin Luther King, Jr., galvanized the civil rights movement with the Birmingham Bus Boycott.
Into this acrimonious and fermenting situation, the Russians dropped a bomb, so to speak, Sputnik, October 4, 1957. Reactions varied. Our Ex-Nazi rocket uber-genius, Wernher von Braun, was livid but unleashed his fury only on the Secretary of Defense, not in any public medium. President Eisenhower was satisfied, even pleased. Russian and American scientists who were attending a cocktail party at the Russian Embassy as part of the International Geophysical Year when the news arrived, were ecstatic. Everyone expected both the U. S. and the Russians to orbit something during the IGY and everyone expected the U. S. would take the lead, but if the Russians went first, so what? Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, panicked. "Soon theyĂ˘€™ll be dropping bombs on us like boys dropping rocks from freeway overpasses." The public, greatly assisted by the media, sided with Johnson. In The Right Stuff some 20 years later, Tom Wolfe wrote "Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake. It was Armageddon, the final and decisive battle between good and evil." According to journalist Paul Dickson, a number of preachers did deliver sermons predicting that the second coming as imminent.
Eisenhower was pleased because he wanted to establish that space was free and internationalĂ˘€"no precedent existed for this. In declassified memoranda IĂ˘€™ve recently obtained, his assistant secretary of defense, Donald Quarles, said the Russians had done us a favor by setting that precedent.
Von Braun was furious and told defense secretary Neal McElroy, "WeĂ˘€™ve got the hardware on the shelf! For GodĂ˘€™s sake, turn us loose and let us do something!" Von Braun did have the hardware on the shelf and on September 20, 1956, over a year ahead of Sputnik, his Army Ballistics Missile Agency team had done something. They launched a four-stage Jupiter-C rocket from Cape Canaveral. After the first three stages had fired, the rocket was 862 miles in the air and travelling at 13,000 miles an hour.
The fourth stage could have easily bumped something into orbit. The fourth stage was filled with sand.
The reasons for refusing Von Braun the glory of being first are many, but perhaps most importantly, America was developing rockets both as weapons and as space exploration devices.
Eisenhower wanted those two aspects kept separate. The Jupiter-C was a weapon. Its primary purpose was to incinerate Russian cities with nuclear warheads. He didnĂ˘€™t think the Russians would react well to a potential mushroom cloud passing overhead every 90 minutes or so. EisenhowerĂ˘€™s position, backed by similar advice from his Scientific Advisory Committee was formalized, but in memoranda that, at the time, were classified. That left the media free to jump on the schools as being at fault.
U.S. News & World Report brought Bestor back for another interview, this one titled "What Went Wrong With American Schools." Bestor put the blame exclusively on Life Adjustment Education. This was absurd. LAE was invented at a conference in 1945 and was aimed at the 60% of the students that the attendees claimed were not accommodated by vocational or college prep programs. Even if it had been immediately and faithfully implemented, which it wasnĂ˘€™t, students headed towards careers in science, mathematics and engineering would have by-passed it entirely. In addition, the engineers working on the space and weapons rockets had exited high school well before LAE was invented.
The most intense and extensive critique of schools as responsible for SputnikĂ˘€™s primacy came in a five-part series from Life magazine beginning in March 24, 1958. In red ink on a black background, LifeĂ˘€™s cover announced "Crisis in Education." Headshots of two high school juniors dominated the cover, a stern-looking Alexei Kutzkov in Moscow and an easy-smiling Stephen Lapekas in Chicago.
Inside, the reader sees Alexei doing complicated experiments in physics and chemistry, and reading aloud from Sister Carrie. In one picture he is at a concert standing under a bust of Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka; in another he is reading an English-Russian phrase book while riding the metro to a science museum. He plays chess and the piano. He has, as yet, little interest in girls. He is a 24/7 student.
Stephen, by contrast is a slacker. We see him walking his girlfriend to school, and dancing in rehearsal for the school musical. Seated at a typewriter, Stephen says, Ă˘€śI type about one word a minute.Ă˘€ť One photo shows Stephen retreating from a geometry problem on the blackboard. The text advises Ă˘€śStephen amused class with wise cracks about his ineptitude.Ă˘€ť
After finding Stephen by accident about 10 years ago, I called and asked if he wanted to talk about his Life experience. Nope. A few years later, I called again. Nope. I can understand why. Think about the scenario. You're a 16-year-old adolescent. A team of Life reporters combs Chicago schools for weeks, settles on you as their guy and follows you around for a week. And then, there you are on the cover, the poster boy for this really lousy school system.
Stephen went on to become a jet pilot for the Navy and had a 30 year career as a commercial pilot. His son, Josh, who has written about the experience and talked with me about it said the experience devastated his father. But he also credits the article for goading his father into his Navy and TWA careers. Josh thinks it was how he said, "Hey Life, fuck you." Life editors wrote, "the standards of education are shockingly low." They turned over two picture-free pages for an essay by novelist Sloan Wilson. A short quote:
One can imagine Wilson toying with a next sentence something like "Our nation is threatened by a rising tide of mediocrity?" But that would have to wait 25 years.
The schools never recovered from the criticism unleashed by Sputnik, and quickly became societyĂ˘€™s scapegoat of choice for perceived social crises. Since Sputnik, the driving force behind school reform efforts has been fear of the future with fear often serving as a means to gain power and control over the schools.
When AmericaĂ˘€™s cities went up in flames in the 1960Ă˘€™s schools once again were blamed. This time, at least one person saw the scam for what it was. Fred Hechinger, writing in the New York Times in 1967 observed
In 1970, a year after the United States successfully landed men on the moon and brought them back safely, no credit to the schools for that, of course, a curious tome appeared, Charles SilbermanĂ˘€™s Crisis in the Classroom.
I call it curious because on page 18 of this 553 page volume, Silberman reports a study conducted by Educational Testing Service examining 186 then-and-now studies. Then-and-now studies are those in which students, separated by some years in time, take the same tests and the results are analyzed to see if the kids did better then, however "then" is defined, than they do now, however "now" is defined. All of the studies had been conducted since World War II and Silberman wrote "in all but ten of the 186 paired comparisons, the group tested at the later date scored higher than the group tested earlier; the results suggest an improvement, on average, of about 20%." Then-and-now studies present significant methodological and interpretive problems, but I repeat: in 176 out of 186 studies, the kids taking the test at a later point in time did better. So whereĂ˘€™s the "crisis." My guess is that itĂ˘€™s in the marketing division of Random House, his publisher. The word "crisis" sells. SilbermanĂ˘€™s report marks the end of an era, although he and we could not have known it at the time. Note that Silberman had a ton of test data, mentioned it, and moved on. Other aspects of school were more important. It SilbermanĂ˘€™s case it was the obsession with control in the classroom and that classrooms were "grim and joyless." I came away from conversations with Silberman some years ago feeling that while he had a broad array of vignettes in his book, his conclusions really came largely from the poor and all black schools in New York City where he lived. His conclusions reflected the same realities that Jonathan Kozol saw in Death at an Early Age, Herb Kohl in 36 Children, and Jim Herndon in The Way It Spozed To BeĂ˘€"the realities of impoverished, all-black schools in Boston, New York, and Oakland.
Earlier critics did not have the hammer of tests to pound schools with. NAEP did not exist until the 1970Ă˘€™s and it remained largely invisible until the 1990Ă˘€™s. SAT scores were stable up to 1963. Most states did not have state testing programs until the 1970Ă˘€™s. All Norm-Referenced tests except the various IowaĂ˘€™s had floating standards so there was no way to tell if the 50th percentile in 1960 represented the same level of achievement as in 1950. International comparisons began in the 1960Ă˘€™s but the early ones contained too many methodological flaws to make them credible.
All that changed with the next report that set tongues clucking about schools, On Further Examination, the College BoardĂ˘€™s 1977 analysis of what was then a 13 year decline in SAT scores. While the panel did identify some issues in teacher training and curriculum, it laid most of the decline on demographic changes in who was taking the test: more women, more minorities, more students from low income families, more students with mediocre high school records who nevertheless wanted to take their shot at college.
The rest of the decline it alleged came from a decade of distraction. And though it did not identify specifics like Woodstock and Altamont, Kent State or the Chicago Police Riot, the rise of the "Counterculture," or the spread of recreational drugs, its summary, even though dressed up in more polite language than I would use, is moving:
ThatĂ˘€™s a quote: "This probably made quite a difference." The Panel saw the decline as a reflection of a general pattern in society. It did not use President CarterĂ˘€™s word, "malaise," but it came close. The New York Times reflected pretty well the panelĂ˘€™s reasoning but mostly the media and the public took away a different message: the high schools had failed.
And now we had hard, objective, scientific evidenceĂ˘€"test scoresĂ˘€"to prove it. Critics had been arguing since James Mayer RiceĂ˘€™s reports in 1892 that the happy talk issuing from the schools was not to be trusted, that school staffs were incompetents installed by political hacks, but they had had to rely on anecdotal and circumstantial evidence or, in the case of Sputnik, irrelevant and phony evidence.
Now they had a report based on scientific, objective, irrefutable data--test scores--from a prestigious panel headed by Willard Wirtz and Doc Howe and peopled with such scholars as Ralph Tyler, Tom James, Bob Thorndike and Ben Bloom.
The PanelĂ˘€™s Report also fit well into other cultural contexts of the times, the so-called Conservative Restoration to recover from the sins of the Sixties, and the alleged Literacy Crisis. Wirtz himself wrote in the introduction, "The publicĂ˘€™s interest is not in the psychometric technicalities of the SAT score decline but in its implications regarding what is widely perceived as a serious deterioration of the learning process in America."
In these same years, states were also making tests more important, tossing out Piagetian or English-infant school influenced curricula and informal learning for Back-to-Basics. When I returned to this country in 1976 from 4 years of doing mostly nothing abroad, my first assignment as Director of Research, Evaluation and Testing for the Virginia Department of Education was to construct a set of tests for the back-to-basic learning objectives written by the DepartmentĂ˘€™s Curriculum and Instruction Division. The next year Virginia got in early on the Minimum Competency Testing madness with a graduation test and the following, just to be consistent I guess, the legislature gifted us with a Teacher Competency Test.
The next few years offered an interesting bit of unobtrusive research into the rise of testing. Within weeks of being hired by Virginia, I was sent to Boulder, Colorado for the annual Conference on Large Scale Assessment sponsored by the Education Commission of the States. Between 5 p.m. and 7 each evening, the major test publishers offered "social hours" which consisted of cheap beer and wine, pretzels and potato chips. By 1982, the social hours had morphed into hospitality suites which opened at noon and closed sometime. They poured Stoli, Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker Black, etc. The Psychological Corporation produced mountains of shaved ice topped with shrimp and cocktail sauce. CTB McGraw-Hill stuffed 80+ people into buses and took us to the Flagstaff House, a restaurant in the mountains behind Boulder at least as famous for its prices as for its food.
Testing was now firmly cemented in place as THE instrument for measuring kids, teachers, and schools. A report to add steel reinforcement to that notion would come along soon. President ReaganĂ˘€™s Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell, hoped for what he called a "Sputnik-like event" to shock Americans about the terrible state of their schools. Lacking such an event, Bell in 1981 reluctantly formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education. One of the driving forces of that commission, Harvard Physicist, Gerald Holton, at first refused the invitation to serve because Reagan was moving to dismantle some science and education programs that Holton supported and he was surprised and dismayed by the makeup of the commissionĂ˘€"not a single national expert in education. It was an omenĂ˘€"the control of education would, over the next 20 years be stripped from educators.
But Holton was coaxed in and "Reagan gave us our marching orders: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. As we left, I detected no visible dismay in our group. I wondered if we were all equally stunned."
The report, "A Nation At Risk," did not mention any of ReaganĂ˘€™s "marching orders" and that caused a schism in White House. Adviser Ed Meese and other conservatives implored Reagan to reject it because it ignored ReaganĂ˘€™s marching orders. Moderates Jim Baker and Mike Deaver urged acceptance because it contained many issues Republicans, including Reagan, could campaign on.
In his memoir, The Thirteenth Man, Bell recounts that he received a phone call saying that ReaganĂ˘€™s speech accepting the report would address vouchers, prayer, the value of private schools and the evils of the NEA and the Department of Education. Bell called Baker who assured him that those remarks had been stricken. They had not.
After Reagan spoke, Bell says he looked into the foyer and "Ed Meese was standing there with a big smile on his face."
It is possible, even likely, that "A Nation At Risk" would have suffered the fate of most commission reportsĂ˘€"gathering dust on a shelf had not one of the commissioners, according to Holton, said, loud enough to be heard by reporters, "We have been had." "For the reporters," Holton goes on, "that was like blood before sharks. A conflict between ReaganĂ˘€™s words and what the commission report said seemed the stuff of scandal, the favorite subject of most reporters."
That remark set off a flood of publicity, almost all of it citing those opening rhetorical flourishes about a rising tide of mediocrity and committing an act of unilateral disarmament. After the Cold Warrior rhetoric came 13 indicators of the risk. All reflect test scores. All accentuate the negative, even when they donĂ˘€™t have to. One of the indicators could have said "Scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development have risen for seven consecutive years," but that information was not among the 13 pieces of data.
Some of the indicators were highly selective. For example, one says, "There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U. S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments." If you look at NAEP trends, you will indeed find such a trendline for 17-year-olds. But not for 13-year-olds or 9-year-olds, the other two ages assessed. And the trends in reading and math show no hint of a decline at any age. Thus the commission had 9 trendlines, only one of which could be used to support crisis rhetoric and that was the one it used.
The report then makes anxious sounds about JapanĂ˘€™s cars, Korea's steel mills, and German machine tools and asserts "The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitorsĂ˘€Â¦If only to keep and improve on the competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to reform of our educational system."
"A Nation At Risk" brought together two assertions that have become gospel: educational quality can be measured by standardized tests and we must raise our test scores to compete in the global economy. High test scores = healthy economic nation. Those are the leitmotifs of the 26 years since the report appeared. You can hear them reflected over and over again in the quotes from President Obama and secretary Duncan that opened this talk, but they took their current form in 1983.
Bell dispatched a team of educators headed by assistant secretary Chester Finn to Japan to see if we could import their education system. One of the team members, Herb Walberg, declared to the Washington Post, "I think itĂ˘€™s portable. Gumption and willpower, thatĂ˘€™s the key." Otherwise Japan would eat our lunch. In the article, there is no indication that people perceived WalbergĂ˘€™s assertions as absurd.
You remember Japan. Its economy was a miracle. Its students aced the tests in international comparisons. Then, about 1990, the Japanese discovered that the EmperorĂ˘€™s Palace and Grounds really werenĂ˘€™t worth more than the entire state of California, and its economy sank into the Pacific, soon taking the other Asian Tiger nations with it. The Japanese now speak of the 1990Ă˘€™s as the lost decade. TheyĂ˘€™ve never actually had a particularly good year since 2000 and theyĂ˘€™re back in a heap of economic hurt: They officially declared themselves in recession again in 2007 and in 2008, the Japanese economy shrank three times as much as the U. S. economy. Their kids still ace tests.
This should give pause to anyone trying to link test scores to the health of a nationĂ˘€™s economy. Iceland did very well in PISA, but the cover of the April issue of Vanity Fair promised to tell Ă˘€śHow Iceland went Pfffft.Ă˘€ť IcelandĂ˘€™s debt is 850% of its GDP. Since PISA tests, math, somehow I donĂ˘€™t the problem is that Icelanders canĂ˘€™t do the arithmetic.
In 1987, reviewing a proposal to revamp NAEP, Bob Glaser, writing for the National Academy of Education said,
One day, reading that passage, I came up with a list of about 25 such personal qualities. IĂ˘€™ll just mention a few here. Creativity, resilience, perseverance, self-discipline, resourcefulness, sense of humor, empathy. And so on. The whole list is on page 32 of Setting the Record Straight.
Well, maybe thereĂ˘€™s hope.
One way of chasing out the fear mongers, maybe, is to show them that thereĂ˘€™s so much more to education than any test can measure. The Sunday, April 5, 2009 New York Times carried a page 1 article about activities that the Scarsdale district is using teach empathy. The hook for the article is probably that itĂ˘€™s in Scarsdale, but it also reports on major efforts in Los Angeles and 18 states. "Empathy lessons are spreading everywhere amid concerns over the pressure on students from high-stakes tests and a race to college that starts in kindergarten."
The Educational Testing Service is adding a "Personal Potential Index" to the Graduate Record Examination with ratings by instructors on Ă˘€śknowledge and creativity; communication skills; capacity for teamwork; resilience; planning and organizational skills; and ethics and integrity.Ă˘€ť ETS says that students need these qualities to succeed in graduate school. Why limit them to graduate school? Somebody should tell Arne about ETSĂ˘€™ plans.
The journalist, Fareed Zakariya, noticed a few years ago, that while Singapore kids stomped American kids on tests, when you looked 10, 20 years down the road, it was the American students who were achieving at high levels in real life. Singapore had no first rate scientists, academics or innovators so he asked the Singapore Minister of Education, How come? And the Minister said, there are some aspects of the brain you cannot measure such as creativity and ambition. ThatĂ˘€™s where Americans excel. Most of all though, itĂ˘€™s American studentĂ˘€™s willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom that gives them an edge. This is where Singapore must learn from America.
From my experiences living in East and Southeast Asia and from what IĂ˘€™ve read, I cannot imagine students in any of those nations asking questions, or any employee suggesting to a supervisor that thereĂ˘€™s a better way of doing something. Zakaria also spoke to a Singaporese father who had lived in the U. S. for a while, then moved back to Singapore. The man noted that when his son spoke up in an American school, he was rewarded with approval and encouraged. In he spoke up in a Singapore school he was "pushy and weird."
People, though, especially the media and those who would like to take advantage of one of the largest untapped markets anywhereĂ˘€"the public schoolsĂ˘€"still make the connection between test scores and the economy. When the first results from the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) arrived, appropriately enough, on Pearl Harbor Day, 2004, the headlines were predictable:
"Math and Science Tests Find 4th and 8th Graders in the U. S. Still Lag." (New York Times.)
"In a Global Test of Math Skills, U. S. Students Behind the Curve." (Washington Post).
"Economic Time Bomb" (Wall Street Journal).
"Math + Test = Trouble for the U. S. Economy." (Christian Science Monitor).
Now, reporters do not write headlines, but those headlines reflected the contents of the story, and I imagine a number of people didnĂ˘€™t look any farther.
The schools cannot buy a good headline. The Progress in International Reading Study gets very few headlines. That might be because the US does well in that international comparison. In 2001, three countries scored higher, 9 were not significantly different, and 23 were lower. In 2006, with 45 countries, 10 scored higher, 13 the same and 30 lower. The U. S. score was 542 in 2001 and 540 in 2006. That difference is the same as a two-point difference on the SAT and well above the international average of 500. But the headline in Education Week, the only outlet I know of that even covered the results at all, was "America Idles on International Reading Test?" Why not "America Continues To Do Well On International Reading Test?" In any case, if America idles, the rest of the world is in neutral, too. Only 10 of the 28 countries that were in both assessments changed more than 10 points in either direction.
One way of countering the fear mongers is to determine whether or not they are using the right statistic or whether there are statistics that are more meaningful. The international comparisons, TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS, all come to us mostly in terms of average scores and how those scores affect a countryĂ˘€™s ranking among other countries in the world. But as Hal Salzman the Urban Institute and Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown pointed out in a paper in Nature last May, the average scores donĂ˘€™t mean anything. They write "If as we argue, average test scores are mostly irrelevant to as a measure of economic potential, other indicators do matter. To produce leading-edge technology, one could argue that it is the numbers of high-performing students that is most important in the global economy. These are students who can enter the science and engineering workforce or are likely to innovate whatever their field of study. Remarkable, but little noted, is the fact that the United States produces the lionĂ˘€™s share of the worldĂ˘€™s best students."
I would temper that by pointing out that they define "worldĂ˘€™s best" terms of test scores, but thatĂ˘€™s the currency of the day and in that currency no one else even comes close. It is very difficult to attain Level 6 on the PISA tests, the highest on the scale. New Zealand tops the world with 4% and Finland is second with 3.9%. But that 3.9% for Finland only translates into 2000 warm bodies. The U. S. has 67,000. Japan is second with about 34,000. The UK has 21,000.
The bad news is that we have the most lowest-performing students aside from Mexico. So thereĂ˘€™s plenty of work to be done on the system, but we donĂ˘€™t have to say, as Duncan just did and as hundreds have across the years, we have a "crisis" in education.
If test scores were so important to global competitiveness, youĂ˘€™d think our ranks on global competitiveness would be comparable to our ranks in the international test comparisons. But theyĂ˘€™re not. There are two organizations that make it their business to rank nations on global competitive, the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the better known World Economic Forum which had its annual do recent in Davos, Switzerland. Now it is really going to be interesting to see what the current debacle does to the rankings, but as of 2008-2009 reports, the U. S. was number one.
The IMD ranks 55 nations and the U. S. took over from Japan in 1994. The IMD wonders how much longer the U. S. can keep the lead. It notes that Singapore has been rising fast. But who cares? As Sam Dillon of the New York Times observed recently, comparing a diverse nation of 300 million with tiny city states such as Hong Kong and Singapore makes little sense. Which reminds me, seldom do the fear mongers take the cultural context of schools into account when discussing test scores. They seldom mention that everyday thousands of poor Malaysians cross into Singapore to do the dirty work. The long-term Ă˘€śguest workers,Ă˘€ť mostly Filipinos, are forbidden to bring their families. These factors save Singapore a lot of work in educating children of the poor.
Back to competitiveness.
The Scandinavian nations get clobbered in the WEF rankings for their high tax rates, but they all rank high on global competitiveness, although I imagine Iceland is done for in that regard. The tax rates are offset by other factors. What is important about the IMD rankings and even more so the WEF rankings is that they reveal how complex the idea of competitiveness is. Education is only one aspect of those rankings.
The WEF has established what it calls "The Twelve Pillars of Competitiveness." I donĂ˘€™t have time to go into detail, but one way of countering the fear mongers is to try to make them aware of this complexity.
First comes institutions which has to do with bureaucracy, corruption, transparency, trustworthiness, accountability, etc. As I say, it will be interesting to see what this yearĂ˘€™s report looks like.
The second pillar is infrastructure. We hear a lot about that these days, but before Katrina blew into town and that bridge collapsed into the Mississippi, I imagine few Americans thought much about infrastructure. Especially in terms of competitiveness. We took our roads, rails, ports, and airports for granted.
Third is Macroeconomy. This is where the US does worst because the WEF hates deficitsĂ˘€"that means money that could be used to increase productivity has to be used as interest on loans.
IĂ˘€™ll just name the others, health and primary education, higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labor market efficiency, financial market sophistication (our financial markets sophisticated themselves right out of business), technological readiness, market size, business sophistication and, most important, innovation. Innovation, where the U. S. is #1, is the most important because it is the only pillar that does not at some point yield diminishing returns. You can only gain so much by, say, making planes bigger and faster, but innovation has no limit. I this connection, I would point out the Bob Sternberg, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts has observed that our obsession with testing has given us our most successful tool for stamping out creativity.
The WEF ranks 134 nations and the U. S. has been #1 for most of the last decade, occasionally slipping to #2. If the forecasts of A Nation At Risk had been correct and if, as the critics claim, the schools never improved, how then did we get ranked #1 in global competitiveness and enjoy the longest sustained expansion in the world, an expansion that was realĂ˘€"productivity soared in the 1990Ă˘€™s.
Finally, let me return to NAEP, but rather than inundating you with numbers of numbers, IĂ˘€™ll just say this: Because of the changing ethnic makeup of this nation, and because of the fact that black and Hispanic students score still lower than whites, analyzing NAEP data simply at the national level makes no sense. In fact, it makes you the victim of SimpsonĂ˘€™s Paradox. SimpsonĂ˘€™s paradox shows up whenever the whole group analyzed shows one pattern but the subgroups show a different pattern.
In 2002, the College Board lamented that there had been no change in the SAT verbal score since 1982. This was true for the national sample. But when I analyzed the trends by ethnicity, I found gains for all groups, some of them quite large. The reason for the apparent paradox was simply the changing demographics. In 1981, whites made up 85% of all SAT testtakers, in 2005, when I conducted the analysis the figure was 63%. The minorities were improving. But because the scores were still lower than whites and because minorities were making up an ever increasing share of the total pool, their lower scores attenuated the overall average.
The same thing is true of NAEP. While there have been some areas of gain overall, if you look at the NAEP trends by ethnicity, the only place you see stability is in 17-year-old white kids. Everybody else is up and in groups up dramatically. For example, in mathematics, black 9-year-olds gained 34 points between 1978 and 2004, black 13-year-olds gained 34 points and black 17-year-olds gained 15 points.
And just as you must cannot speak of "American" scores without looking at ethnic breakouts, neither can you speak of American schools without looking at breakouts by poverty. Yes, other countries have poor kids but many fewer. In one UNESCO study, the U. S. was 20th among 20 developed nations. HereĂ˘€™s an example of what poverty does to test scores taken from PIRLS.
Top country Sweden, score 561
U. S. overall 542
International Average 500
The 14.5% of American students in schools with less than 10% of their students in poverty 589
The 19.5% of students in schools with 10% to 25% in poverty, 567. The 29.8% of students in school with 25-50 in poverty 551Ă˘€"if this group constituted a nation it would rank 4th among the 35 countries.
ThatĂ˘€™s 64% of American students scoring at the top.
The 21.3% of American students in schools with 50-75% in poverty, 519, still above the international average.
Only the 15.1% of students in schools with more than 75% of their students in poverty score below the international average at 485.
Similar breakouts from TIMSS yield similar results. ItĂ˘€™s tough to do with PISA because high school students donĂ˘€™t like to admit theyĂ˘€™re poor.
So what does this all mean?
We have gains in NAEP scores in all subjects for all ethnic groups and ages except white 17-year-olds where the scores are stable.
Comparative studies indicate no nations would meet the NAEP standard of a majority of students proficient in reading, five would have a small majority in math, and two would have a small majority in science.
We score well on international tests of reading. And kids who are not in poverty to especially well. That last applies to math and science, too.
We have gained more on TIMSS since 1995 than all but three nations. And our 8th graders, rather than "falling" to 9th place have risen to 9th place from 28th on TIMSS math.
SAT math scores are up to about where they were before they began the decline in 1963. Verbal scores remain subpar.
I only mentioned this, but we have three newly minted, homegrown bachelorĂ˘€™s in science and engineering for every new position and they show an attrition rate of 65% in two years. I fear that there is no way to counter the fear mongers directly. They have an agenda most of which revolves around controlling the curriculum and instruction and/or replacing the public schools with a private system.
They are subject to shame, however. About 10 years ago Alex Molnar put together a loose confederacy of people to act as an underfunded countweight to the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, etc. At the first meeting I looked around at the 25 or so people in the room and said "This will never work." The reason, I thought, was that the people in the room already had very full lives without taking on additional efforts on behalf of the schools. But, ten years later, now co-headquartered at the University of Colorado and Arizona State, there are about 120 "fellows" as we are called engaged in a number of endeavors. Among the more successful, I think, is the Think Twice project known internally as the Think Tank Review Project. The Heritages and Hoovers of the world along with some professors like Paul Peterson at Harvard and Jay Greene at Arkansas had taken to publishing un-peer reviewed papers which, on close examination, presented selective data leading to pretermined conclusion. The Think Twice project hires scholars to review these advocacy research papers as one would a manuscript submitted to Ed Researcher or AERJ and publishes the results. The originals are credited for sound conclusions, faulted for overreaching, which is a common theme in the papers.
I have been to several conferences at the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation where the project was mentioned, and not derisively. They are aware that people are watching. In fact, Kevin Welner who directs the University of Colorado end of the whole operation was invited to AEI to debate his recent book on tuition tax credits. He told me his opponent from the Cato Institute sincerely complimented the book, although he had disagreements with it. Unfortunately, Kevin also tells me that the project has not stanched the flow of flawed papers.
The general public is more open. If it werenĂ˘€™t, the Gallup/Kappan poll numbers would be in the toilet and they arenĂ˘€™t. The problem is getting the information to them. They, too, make the general assumption that schools stink although they donĂ˘€™t think about it very much unless they have kids in the schools and then they tend to be more positive. But I canĂ˘€™t count the number of people whose jaws have dropped when IĂ˘€™ve given them some stats on NAEP trends or international comparisons or whatever.
One large problem, of course, is access to media and a subpart of that problem is, in the case of newspapers, is their location. It is hard to convince op-ed page editors at the Washington Post or New York Times that those citiesĂ˘€™ poorer schools do not reflect the nation as a whole. An occasional positive piece will occur inhouse, as happened a couple of years ago in the Post and a few months ago with the Boston Globe, but the operative term there is "occasional." These pieces come against a steady drumbeat of failure.
If op-ed coverage is limited, television coverage is virtually non-existent. Bill Gates gets on Oprah, David Berliner does not. The KIPP boys get on Oprah, Alex Molnar does not. Hell, I canĂ˘€™t even get Bill Moyers, Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow to respond to my data and their implications.
Part of that media problem is that no one who supports public education can, as Bill Gates and Eli Broad did, throw 50 million dollars into a media blitz to make education a presidential campaign issue. Although Roy Romer, whom Gates and Broad chose to oversee the project, seemed to be everywhere, the economic crisis kept education in the background. That campaign, by the way, although claiming to be non-partisan, was built entirely on the negative, and often erroneous statistics I have mentioned earlier. Take a look at
The site has a trailer for "Two Million Minutes: The New Documentary that Sounds the Alarm About AmericaĂ˘€™s Education Crisis."
And part of the problem, it must be said, is that at the university level, few people exhibit any enthusiasm for getting the word out. After the publication of The Manufactured Crisis, Berliner was often asked if he now felt marginalized. The professoriate is heavily invested in school failure, using it to liberate money from foundations and governments. I think it no accident that in the 17 years that I have been writing on the topic of school quality, I have received many invitations to speak at small universities with large undergraduate teacher preparation programs, and only once to speak to a major university. That was Indiana University which also has a large undergraduate program and is also a place where I used to teach.
One of the personal qualities I mentioned as important that tests donĂ˘€™t measure is perseverance. Another not on my list but it probably should be is patience. Conservatives are patient, liberals typically are not. I canĂ˘€™t imagine a meeting of conservatives where people yell Ă˘€śWhat do we want? Vouchers! When do we want them? Now! So when people ask me, DonĂ˘€™t you get depressed, I say yeah, but I keep Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, the abolitionists and the suffragettes in mind and feel better. Who knows what the future will bring? The only person I know who said the 60Ă˘€™s could have been predicted from the 50Ă˘€™s is George Will and he didnĂ˘€™t make that prediction until 2001.
But be patient. Cultivate reporters, but donĂ˘€™t overstate your case. ThatĂ˘€™s less a problem among the professoriate, than K-12 folk. A bigger problem in academia is responding to media at all. When I once chastised the Washington PostĂ˘€™s Jay Mathews for frequently quoting a person I considered an airhead, MathewsĂ˘€™ reply was "SheĂ˘€™s always the first to get back to me." Reporters donĂ˘€™t live on the leisurely timelines of professors.
Beyond that, dig deeply into the data to determine if the reports actually say what the press releases say they say. It is said that if you tell a lie often enough people will believe. One can only hope that the same applies to the truth.
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