Education In America—Is It That Bad?

Education in America—Is it THAT bad?

The next time you hear on a television news report how American education compares with that of other countries, you really should have the opportunity to ask a few questions. Here are a few, with explanations—

  1. 1.       On what basis are the comparisons being made?

In conversation with the director of one state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress    testing program, I asked “what tests are they using to determine student performance?”  He said that there are three main tests, the Program for International  Student Assessment (PISA) that tests 15 yr. olds in Math, Reading and Science; Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) addressing students in grades 4 and 8, and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), also for 4th graders. In looking at the websites for these assessments, it appears that there are wide variances among various ethnic and socio-economic groups within the U.S., and that the scores used for comparisons represent the “total score” including all subgroups. In fact, several of our subgroups are among the highest internationally; it would seem more productive to look at the groups that are underperforming internationally, and initiate interventions focused specifically on their needs rather than “indicting” all of   American education.

  1. 2.       Who is being compared?

Many countries, at some locally-determined age level, separate students for placement on the various career paths available; for example, it is not uncommon for only a select few students to attend high school, with the others going into vocational streaming.

In 1983, while attending a training session for presidents of state secondary school principal organizations, a group of us were summoned to the White House so that President Reagan would have an audience to hear an important report on education. This was the so-called “A Nation At Risk” Report, which outlined numerous deficiencies in U.S. high school education, as compared with other countries, notably Japan. The Report formed the basis for directing more attention to U.S. Education, across the whole country, which was a good thing, but ignored some major facts: (1) I read a story by George Melton, later Executive Director of the National Middle School Association, which looked into the data for the report, and determined that only “about 23%” of Japanese students were going to high school; the rest were in vocational programs; (2) to my knowledge, ours is the only country which requires 100% of children to attend school, including at least starting high school, and (3) there are Supreme Court decisions which support the provision of equal opportunity for all students, a perspective that prohibits students from being channeled off into a restrictive career path. In fact, there were decisions that prevented gifted students from being separated into a different “track” from other students, the idea being that it would block other students from access to the same opportunities as the gifted. In other words, our “100 %” may be being compared to some upper level population in other countries. I would be interested in seeing the composition of those international samples.

  1. 3.       How closely is U.S. curriculum aligned with that being used on the international assessments?

We presently are in the process of considering adoption of a “national curriculum” In the core subject areas (Reading, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies) in order to hopefully achieve consistency throughout the country. As things are at present, there is little difference from one region to the other relative to the total curriculum; the main differences occur as to which    curriculum unit is taught at which grade level. But beyond that, for comparison purposes, how  are these curricula aligned with those used internationally? Several years ago, at a Wyoming School Improvement Conference in Casper, Michael Schmoker presented an overview of mathematics curricula, comparing the narrow scope of those used in some European countries with our broadly-inclusive programs in general use in this country. His        suggestion was that perhaps we are providing shallow learning “across the board” rather than achieving in-depth command of basic skills.

In summary, yes, there are many issues in need of examination “within the numbers”, but at the same time there are areas of excellence. Which country seems to annually receive the most Nobel prizes in Mathematics, Economics, Physics, Medicine, Chemistry, Biology, Literature, et al? Where are those people educated? And regardless of subgroup, throughout my long career I can think of very few children who came from a home where their self concept and confidence level were strongly supported, who did not graduate from high school. We need to look at what those parents, or increasingly that one parent, did to start that child on a journey of success.

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