Saturday, April 04, 2015



by Lee Funk :: SI&A Cabinet Report :: The Essential Resource for Superintendents and the Cabinet  |

April 01, 2015  ::  Before the upcoming presidential race’s political climate gets too warm, let’s moderate the heated rhetoric about the dismal state of American education with some cold facts and careful analysis.

The leading Republican candidate, Jeb Bush (despite lack of a formal declaration to date), is being touted as a potential education reformer.  Meanwhile, Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, has already announced NEA’s commitment to influencing poll results.

No real surprise. Ever since “A Nation at Risk” was published in the early ’80s, our schools have been tossed around like a slippery sphere in a game of beach volley ball for the sake of grandstanding. But the facts have repeatedly been lost in the sand so here are three informational points that should be tallied when keeping score.

Contrary to claims of many politicians and policy makers, U.S. students do well in international competition.

Shortly after taking his position as Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan commented on results of testing from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) saying “American students are poorly prepared to compete in today’s knowledge economy….”

But that comment and others like it completely ignore the democratic structure of the American student body and, in so doing, overlooks the essential requirement for valid comparative evaluation –making sure samples are similar in nature.

In our country there is limited tracking and no stratified transfers as pupils progress through the system. It is completely the opposite in many other industrialized countries. Among nations participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment – the measure frequently used to gauge academic achievement throughout the international community – 26 engage in some form of tracking for students between the ages of 10-16.

The result is that, as test takers increase in age, all American students – regardless of scholastic ability – compete with top performers from other nations. Since rankings are based on mean scores, the results for the United States will inevitably be driven downward.

Comparisons are also skewed by a similar phenomenon associated with socio-economic status. “Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution,” the Economic Policy Institute has noted.

Besides, a highly relevant factor, in terms of the economic and cultural well-being of a society, is the proportion of high performing students; in that regard, the United States is doing very well indeed. When examining results from the PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, researchers in “Nature,” a weekly journal of science, reported “[E]ducation testing shows formidable US strength as the largest producer of top-scoring students.” That’s in sheer numbers, of course, but even when population differences are considered, “[T]he United States has a higher percentage of top-performing students than 5 of the 14 others in the top-ranked group of countries with high average scores.” This rate places America in the top 10 among nations with the highest achieving test takers.

We spend more per capita on education than any other country in the world and – again, despite a common partisan slant – it’s paying off pretty well.

According to University of Southern California Rossier staff, when considered in relation to 11 other industrialized nations, in 2011 we averaged $7,743 per student. The United Kingdom was second highest at $5,834.

That’s the price we pay for a literacy rate of 99 percent (third in comparison to the same group of nations).

It’s also the cost for diversity.

“The US ranks 7th highest among OECD countries in the percentage of immigrant students enrolled,” the NEA asserted in a recent paper.

And we should never forget that universal schooling in the U.S. includes not only those who are disadvantaged, from another country or who speak another language, but also every single person through the age of 21 with a disability – no matter how severe.

Local control works. As a matter of fact, it works extremely well.

The most comprehensive intrusion by the federal government into education was the No Child Left Behind Act, which, within 10 years of its passage had virtually every educator, advocate, and knowledgeable family member calling for its repeal, and today has resulted in over 80 percent of the states operating under waivers from its main provisions.

In a comprehensive study of public opinion polls from 1970 to 2010, research from the University of Michigan determined that those surveyed favored local boards for making decisions in multiple areas: daily operations, improving quality, and deciding what is taught. The percentage of respondents who would prefer more federal involvement has remained relatively stable but those interested in less influence have continued to rise.

“As education governance shifted away from local control and toward state and federal authorities, the trends outlined here demonstrate that the public is less quick than are education policy leaders to endorse the abandonment of locally controlled public education. Though we find some growth in the percentage of the public favoring state and federal involvement on specific issues … in many cases we find that a significant portion of the public has actually grown more tentative about trusting state and federal officials….,” the investigators concluded.

Be wary of populists asserting that our educational system is failing and the solution is more involvement, control, or legislative mandates by the federal government. That initial premise is decidedly false and even if it were true, the solution does not reside in Washington D.C.

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