Is it OK to be average?

U.S. students were average in reading and science, and below average in math, in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) rankings. What’s so awful about being average? asks National Journal.

Can the United States, one of the most diverse of the world’s developed countries, really compete with much smaller and homogenous countries like Finland and Korea? . . . With the United States’ broad range between rural and urban, rich and poor populations, what can it realistically expect in worldwide educational comparisons?

Homogeneity isn’t educational magic, responds Kevin Carey of Education Sector.  PISA champion Finland has a sparse, overwhelmingly white population who practice the same denomination of Christianity and are concentrated near the capital city. So does Utah, which produces mediocre test scores.

That state would be Utah, whose results are decidedly mediocre.

Finland isn’t successful because it’s homogenous. (Albania is homogenous.) It’s successful because it has clear, well-implemented national standards, equitable school funding, a strong social safety net, high-quality early childhood education, and smart, highly-trained teachers. We could have those things in America, too.

“Learning is the entry ticket to the idea economy,” writes Tom Vander Ark of Revolution Learning.  The uneducated will be stuck in the service economy, unable to qualify for a middle-class job.

David Kirp, a Berkeley professor, points out that high-achieving countries all have highly centralized systems with a national curriculum and “well-trained, comparatively well-paid teachers.” Strategies range from “skill-and-drill to a Dewey-influenced constructivist approach.”

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Comments

  1. Isn’t E. D. Hirsch always talking about other heterogeneous countries with great educational outcomes, and saying that diversity is no excuse for failure? Maybe he and Professor Kirp agree on that.

  2. Smart, highly-trained teachers means that affirmative action and diversity preferences have to go.  The Usual Suspects will never allow that, or even admit that it might be desirable.

  3. PISA champion Finland has a sparse, overwhelmingly white population who practice the same denomination of Christianity and are concentrated near the capital city. So does Utah, which produces mediocre test scores.

    You could, if you wanted to, pick Minnesota as a overwhelmingly white state with a Scandinavian ethnic background. Minnesota produces pretty good test scores.

    Which suggests that by careful selection from the data you can argue for or against homogeneous Scandinavian-ness as an advantage?

    -Mark Roulo

  4. North of 49th says:

    This article from The Atlantic had an interesting conclusion:

    Early last year, President Obama reminded Congress, “The countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” This September, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, visiting a local school on the first day of classes, mentioned Obama’s warning and smugly took note of the scoreboard: “Well,” he said, “we are out-teaching them today.”

    Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, responded to the premier’s trash-talking a few days later. “When I played professional basketball in Australia, that’s the type of quote the coach would post on the bulletin board in the locker room,” he declared during a speech in Toronto. And then his rejoinder came to a crashing halt. “In all seriousness,” Duncan confessed, “Premier McGuinty spoke the truth.”

    Certainly, teacher quality and education is an important factor (much more so than homogeneity or a national curriculum).

    There’s an OECD study that examines the different countries participating in PISA and the lessons to be learned:

    http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/32/50/46623978.pdf

    The whole thing is interesting, but on pp.65-79 it discusses what factors have made Ontario, Canada successful despite lower per-pupil costs, high levels of immigration/diversity, and absence of any federal involvement.

  5. A recent post on this issue (can’t remember where) discussed the diversity issue in Ontario; apparently the recent immigrants are from very different countries and backgrounds than those arriving in the US.

    A huge factor is the student/family/community culture; if education is highly valued, kids tend to do well. Saying education is valued doesn’t cut it; the culture has to demand suitable behavior, effort and concentration and enforce it.

  6. North of 49th says:

    Whoops, I meant to post the link to the Atlantic article, “Your Child Left Behind.”

    Here it is:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/12/your-child-left-behind/8310/

  7. You could, if you wanted to, pick Minnesota as a overwhelmingly white state with a Scandinavian ethnic background. Minnesota produces pretty good test scores

    But Minnesota far trails Finland in the percentage of students reaching the “advanced” proficiency level in math (only around 10% in MN vs. over 20% in Finland).

    In this highly globalized economy, the U.S. cannot afford to settle for mediocrity.

  8. Having lived in MN, one of the best parts of the school system is choice; both across schools (statewide) and the PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Option) program, which allows qualified HS kids to take classes at local CC or colleges and the district pays tuition, fees and books. (No transportation is provided, however) I knew of one kids who went straight from 8th grade to the local CC and then to the U or MN. Even the “top” districts don’t really challenge the honors kids until they get to the APs and don’t necessarily have strong choices at the MS level.

  9. Jeez, no “Lake Woebegone” references? Disappointing.

  10. How many American kids leave high school early for CC, or skip it entirely? Such students wouldn’t take the PISA exam, would they, as they’re already enrolled in college?

  11. As Fareed Zakaria has well noted, it isn’t necessarily about the decline of America, as it is about “the rise of the rest.” Clearly, America has a profound sense of exceptionalism that isn’t measured by test scores. And, it is rightfully noted, that kids in many countries have entirely different motivations toward PISA tests, based on their culture and educational system.

  12. How do they decide who takes the PISA exam? I know I never took anything like it in Highschool– We had AHSME, AIME, MD functional tests, the PSAT, AP Exams…. but no PISA.

    And we were in a Magnet School– definitely ‘advanced’ in Math.

    BUT I can’t imagine any of my teachers would have willingly given up instructional time so that we could take a test like this–

    So, how do we know the most advanced students are even TAKING this test? Wouldn’t the most advanced classes also be the ones most likely to try to AVOID wasting time on this?

  13. A brief jaunt to Wikipedia tells me the test didn’t start until 2000. So that’s why I missed out (Graduated in 1995). BUT, when I was teaching, the Catholic school never offered this….. now, after reading Wkipedia, I see why:

    To fulfill OECD requirements, each country must draw a sample of at least 5,000 students. In small countries like Iceland and Luxembourg, where there are less than 5,000 students per year, an entire age cohort is tested. Some countries used much larger samples than required in order to allow comparisons between regions

    ——

    5,000 15 year olds nationwide?????? That is a RIDICULOUSLY small sample size. If it’s random, wouldn’t you expect it to vary a lot from year to year?

    Also, assuming it’s given during the school day and the selected kids are given a choice, wouldn’t it select for the kids who were MOST LIKELY to want to miss class that day?

    Does anyone have more info on how this works in the US? Because, as it is, I’m a bit skeptical that this data is WORTH pontificating on. Also, do the kids get to learn their individual scores? Because if you never get to see the results, I’d expect the testtakers to skew even MORE heavily towards the “just want to get out of class for a day” crowd…..

  14. Except that our other more widely-taken measures of math achievement (NAEP, SAT, ACT, etc.) don’t exactly paint a rosy picture of American teens either. NAEP scores for 17 y.o.’s have barely changed since the 1970’s. The College Board had to re-center the SAT the year after I took it and average scores have declined since then. The recent ACT report found that only 43% of those taking the exam were college-ready in math. And on and on…

  15. Mark Roulo says:

    5,000 15 year olds nationwide?????? That is a RIDICULOUSLY small sample size.

    If the sampling is done correctly, then 5,000 is more than enough to draw conclusions from. It does mean that you won’t be able to distinguish between, say, two countries who score only 2 or 3 points apart, but scores that close are really just saying that the countries are basically identical for this measure anyway.

    It would be nice to see standard deviations along with the test scores for this (and for lots of other things). When a small change in score (which could well be noise) can move rankings a lot, then the absolute ranking doesn’t say what most people think it does.