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NCLB Outrages

Back to School, Thinking Globally

Ohanian Comment: Editorialist and prime Standardisto Brent Staples is the obvious author of this editorial, and he is hopeless. He champions vouchers, NCLB, and anything else that promises to raise the test scores of African-American kids.

In his echoing of the corporate mantra about the U. S. labor force, Staples is in deep denial about corporate motives. Microsoft, IBM, and all the rest aren't shipping computer jobs overseas because of an inadequate workforce. For a history of the corporate plan, try reading Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?

I know it's wishful thinking to suggest that an editorialist might try reading serious critiques of his warmly held views, but I suggest that the New York Times editorial writer, aka Brent Staples, should stop yammering for a few minutes, disengage himself from the rarified corporate cacaphony, and read David Berliner's great speech and documentation on the impact of poverty on American school children .

Gerald Bracey makes these points:

  • As usual, a critic emphasizes ranks, not scores. Ranks force differences. When the run the final heat of the 100 meter dash in the Olympics, someone will rank last, must rank last. He is still the 8th fastest human being on the planet that day and his score is marvelous.

  • The link between test scores and global competitiveness is weak at best. The World Economic Forum ranks the U. S. economy as #1 although that ranking is pre-Katrina and the ripples from New Orleans up to the Canadian border in the midwest have yet to be fully realized.

  • As usual, a critic has strung together loose logic and unsupported statements. I don't have details on immigration in other countries, but I can't imagine any of them--even France or German with much more than 10% minority. In the U. S. it is approaching 35%. Texas just became a minority majority state, joining California. There's lotsa people in those two states.

  • At one point the editorial says "Worst of all, they fall further and further behind their peers abroad the longer they stay in school." To accept this requires a stupidly naive acceptance of the original TIMSS Final Year study. It was an apples to aardvarks comparison. American students most like their foreign peers are in the middle of the pack, which is where they were as 8th graders. It is also where they are as 10th graders in PISA. (An extensive treatment of TIMSS can be found in my article in the May 2000 Educational Researcher).

    I do think there's a fall-off from 4th to 8th grades explained by teachers covering too many topics and by treating middle school as review years. TIMSS found American teachers cover many more topics than their foreign peers.

  • "American students are also bested by nations like Poland, Ireland, and the Czech Republic." So what's the point of insulting these nations, Brent? Poland scored a whopping 7 points higher on a 600 point scale. Big effing deal. I would remind all that Prague, capital of the Czech Republic (which scored 33 points higher), has long been a cultural center and is often today called "The New Paris." Mozart wrote a symphony to honor the city which he loved. Why should we expect a nation with such a legacy to score low?

  • "...this country is rapidly losing ground..." There is no evidence of this whatsoever.

  • "The nations that have left us behind educationally have a few things in common. They decide at the national level what children should learn and when they should learn it."

    This is called the base-rates fallacy and I am amazed that the Times would let it slip into an editorial. People also said this about the original TIMSS results--all 5 of the highest scoring nations had centralized educational systems. What do they know that we don't?

    But a look at the base rates--the situation for everyone--showed that, indeed, 8 of the 10 highest scoring countries of the 41 in the study had centralized systems, but so did 8 of the 10 lowest scoring nations. That was in math. In science it was 8 of the 10 highest and 9 of the 10 lowest. Agreeing nationally on what to teach and when to teach it counts for nothing by itself.

  • Finally, "Comparisons show that the rest of the developed world does a better job of educating students of all economic backgrounds." This is simply not true. Germany is about the worst in the world and a number of others do worst as well. The gradient of performance from rich to poor drops off more steeply in a number of other nations.

  • This statement amounts to an outright lie


    The nearly 50 million children who are returning to the nation's public schools are incrementally better off than they would have been five years ago. That's partly because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires the states to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor students and generally improve student performance in exchange for federal dollars.

    The great achievement of No Child Left Behind is that it has forced the states to focus at last on educational inequality, the nation's most corrosive social problem. But it has been less successful at getting educators and politicians to see the education problem in a global context, and to understand that this country is rapidly losing ground to the nations we compete with for high-skilled jobs that require a strong basis in math and science.

    American taxpayers have heard a fair amount about the fact that their children lag behind the children of Britain, France, Germany and Japan. But American students are also bested by nations like Poland, Ireland and the Czech Republic. Worst of all, they fall further and further behind their peers abroad the longer they stay in school.

    The United States can still prosper in a world where its labor costs are higher than the competition's, but it cannot do that if the cheaper workers abroad are also better educated. Business leaders who have firsthand experience with this problem warn that this country could become a third-rate economic power unless it radically remakes its schools. But the education community is in deep denial. American educators typically respond with yawns - and a series of myths. The most common is that Europeans educate only the elite, while this nation educates everybody. That hasn't been true since the early 20th century. Comparisons show that the rest of the developed world does a better job educating students of all economic backgrounds.

    A second myth - that America's white elite children compare favorably with those abroad - is also false. In the most recent international data, comparing students in the top 5 percent in terms of achievement, the United States ranks 23rd out of 29. The third and most common myth - that the nations who do better than us are "homogenous" societies - is also not true. Immigration has transformed much of Europe, as it has the United States.

    The nations that have left us behind educationally have a few things in common. They decide at the national level what children should learn and when they should learn it. They appear to have higher and more uniform standards for teacher training and performance as well as better compensation. Government education officials monitor schools closely to ensure a uniform quality of education. The United States, in contrast, has an almost random system. We leave curriculum issues to localities and to textbook companies, which run the educational system by default.

    The United States needs to develop a coherent policy that makes schools better everywhere. That means strengthening teaching and curriculum in poor communities, and it also means improving education for the best American students, who look like geniuses in math and science until they are stacked up against better-prepared foreign youngsters. Unless this country acts, our economy will wind up occupying the same low-performing spot on the global charts that our schools occupy now.

    — Editorial
    New York Times


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