PISA: U.S. has fewer high flyers

It’s PISA Day! Once again, U.S. students score at the international average among developed nations that take the exam.

“Our economic competitors, including Japan, Korea, and Germany,” score much higher, notes Mark Schneider on The Quick and the Ed. “What should scare us is the low percentage of students in the highest levels of performance (PISA level 5 and above).”

The U.S. has concentrated on leaving no child behind. NAEP “scores of African Americans, Hispanics, and low-income fourth and eighth graders in reading and math have leaped upward,” but  “the percentage of students who score at NAEP’s advanced level has stagnated.”

Child poverty doesn’t explain U.S. mediocrity, argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. The U.S. does better in reading, which is far more linked to parental education, than in math, which is more school-dependent.

The U.S. is about average for child poverty for countries in the survey, adds Marc Tucker, director of the Center on Education and the Economy.  Diversity doesn’t explain it either. Five PISA countries — some with higher scores have a higher percentage of immigrant students.

Others say that the U.S. is unique because in that it educates everyone and the countries listed among the top performers only educate their elite. In fact, the dropout rate in our high schools is around 25 percent, while some of the top performers are graduating close to 90 percent of the students who enter their high schools. It is they who are educating everyone.

Top-performing countries invest heavily in teachers’ skills, says Tucker. Some let only the best students go into teaching.

International test scores show U.S. prosperity is at risk, argues Tucker in a Washington Post debate with anti-tester Valerie Strauss.

U.S. high school students have trouble applying skills to real-world problems, writes Dana Goldstein on Slate.

One math activity asked students to compare the value of four cars, using a chart showing the mileage, engine capacity, and price of each one. American kids were especially bad at problems like this, in which they were not provided with a formula, but had to figure out how to manipulate the numbers on their own.

A reading activity asked test takers to read a short play, and then write about what the characters were doing before the curtain went up. The challenge is that the question prompts students to envision and describe a scene not actually included in the text itself. These are good questions that most of our kids should be able to tackle—we want analytical, creative children, not just kids who are good at memorization.

The “Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth,” so it  “probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA,” Goldstein writes. But it will take more than that.

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Comments

  1. “In fact, the dropout rate in our high schools is around 25 percent, while some of the top performers are graduating close to 90 percent of the students who enter their high schools. It is they who are educating everyone.”

    The key fact being ignored is that in many of these countries, much of their population does not attend high school, and in many cases is not allowed to go to high school. In the United states we mandate that everyone attend high school.

    • The US has a long history of failing to challenge its top kids. “Those kids will do fine, anyway (so we don’t have to offer them anything special)” has been around at least since my late FIL started teaching HS in the 30s. There’s still LOTS of opposition to magnet programs, serious honors/AP tracks and homogeneous grouping, especially in ES-MS. Often, “gifted” programs offer only artsy “enrichment”, not more and deeper material and a faster pace. The focus has been on “the gap” for decades; to the extent that kids reading at 5th-grade level are pushed into AP English classes – just read the WaPo regularly.

  2. It is hard to figure out what these percentages mean. A more reasonable thing to measure is what percentage of 18 year olds perform at a certain (high) level. This percentage wouldn’t change even if you kick out the bottom half of the class.

  3. Cranberry says:

    Massachusetts did _really_ well: The best showing by Massachusetts 15-year-olds on the Program for International Student Assessment tests came in reading, where only three other participants scored higher: Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

    In science, Massachusetts was topped by just six educational systems, including Finland and Estonia; and in math, Massachusetts trailed only nine participants, such as Korea, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/12/03/mass-scores-high-marks-international-test/kK0GesOEWGhseEwrnay09L/story.html

    • I understand that MA has had really strong standards for years – and I remember the flap when HUGE numbers of teachers failed their test – but is MA keeping theirs or going to CC? Which I’m pretty sure is much weaker.

    • Ted Craig says:

      It’s interesting to look at these results on a state-by-state basis like that. Minnesota, the American equivalent of Finland, actually scores higher than the country everyone seems to envy. Most cross-border comparisons with the U.S. are unfair.

  4. Mike in Texas says:

    So 10 years of high stakes tested has lowered the results. Way to go “reformers”

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Correlation or causation, Mike?

      If a private corporation made the promises and provided the end result that public education does they’d be successfully sued for fraud.

      • Mike in Texas says:

        Pick your poison, Stacy. The kids who took these tests are the products of top-down, test-driven education reform. Look up the date of NCLB.

      • Mike in Texas says:

        BTW, the US has a 99% literacy rate (according to the CIA world fact book), so your claims of a poor end result are nonsense.

        • Um, does the CIA World Fact Book consider Detroit part of the United States?

          I’ve got to think “no” because I’m pretty sure the Detroit Public Schools district would drag down American literacy numbers below 99% all by itself.

          By the way, how’s the campaign to find parents good enough to make your job easy coming?

          • “By the way, how’s the campaign to find parents good enough to make your job easy coming?”

            Well for me, pretty damn slow.

            Which is why I am willing to settle for “make my job possible”.

          • Mike in Texas says:

            You can look for yourself, Allen. I’ve posted the link plenty of times.

            BTW, you “reformers” are always bitching about how much money the US spends on education, turns out not much compared to other countries.

            ducation expenditures:

            5.4% of GDP (2009)
            country comparison to the world: 60

            That’s the big six zero. Here is the link,

            https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html

          • I suppose that’s why you’re concentrating on finding excuses, hey gahrie?

            The thing about the “blame the parents” shtick is that there’s nowhere to go after that. Once the novelty of this new distraction’s evaporated all that’ll be left as that you’re still getting a paycheck and the kids still aren’t being educated.

            But I suppose you try not to think about that.

            We’ve been down this road many times Mike. When you provide a link you’ve either misrepresented the information on the link or it’s a link to an opinion piece you’ve neglected to identify as such.

            By the way, the CIA World Fact Book also informs us that Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8% and their education spending consists of 12.9% of GDP (2010).

            I guess that brings up the question of how much funding education ought to take.

            Now the Cubans are spending an eighth of their GDP to achieve, it’s purported, essentially the same results as the U.S. which spends half that.

            I think that makes the Cubans either shmucks or liars. I’m inclined towards “liars” but it isn’t necessarily one or the other.

        • 99% literacy under this definition of literacy: “Over 15 and can read and write.” It’s quite possible to fit that definition and have a “poor end result”. I’ll just grab from the wikipedia (that hotbed of reform activists) article on U.S. literacy here to lay out for you how depressingly bad literacy actually is here:

          The US D?partment of Education, Institute of Education Sciences has conducted large scale assessment of adult proficiency in 1992 and 2003 using a common methodology from which trends could be measured. The study measures Prose, Document, and Quantitative skills and 19,000 subjects participated in the 2003 survey. There was no significant change in Prose or Document skills and a slight increase in Quantitative attributes. As in 2008, roughly 15% of the sample could function at the highest levels in all three categories. Roughly 40% were at either basic or below basic levels of proficiency in all three categories.[2] The study identifies a class of adults who, although not meeting criteria for functional illiteracy, face reduced job opportunities and life prospects due to inadequate literacy levels relative to the requirements of contemporary society.
          The study, the most comprehensive study of literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government, was released in April 2002 and reapplied in 2003 giving trend data. It involved lengthy interviews of over 90,700 adults statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the U.S. and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole. This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not “able to locate information in text”, could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials”, and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” Further, this study showed that 41% to 44% of U.S. adults in the lowest level on the literacy scale (literacy rate of 35 or below) were living in poverty.[2]
          A follow-up study by the same group of researchers using a smaller database (19,714 interviewees) was released in 2006 that showed some upward movement of low end (basic and below to intermediate) in U.S. adult literacy levels and a decline in the full proficiency group.[3]
          Thus, if this bottom quantile of the study is equated with the functionally illiterate, and these are then removed from those classified as literate, then the resultant literacy rate for the United States would be at most 65-85% depending on where in the basic, minimal competence quantile one sets the cutoff.
          The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the “average” American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States

  5. Ann in L.A. says:

    >>[Roger Sweeny] If they are near the top of the world (and they are slightly above average in the state), schools all over the world are not accomplishing what they are supposed to be accomplishing.<<

    This is a point I make as often as I can. I remember watching an old "Leave It To Beaver" or "Andy Griffith" with the kids in a classroom being asked a challenging question about a history reading they had done (I assume as homework) and being shocked at how much a third grader was supposed to know, how deeply they were being asked to think about it, and how the class discussion resembled what we would think of as a high-school or college level–and the kids were about 8.

    In another thread here, I posted that the uproar over Common Core testing is in part driven by parents who assume that, because they moved to a good neighborhood with good school, that their kids are getting a good education. Those assumptions are faulty. Not only do our kids lag internationally, but they don't know as much and can't do as much as previous generations.

    Too many educators have decided that "learning how to learn"–whatever that means–is more important than actually learning something.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I think it is important to realize that these were lines in a script, written to move the story along. I am 99.99% sure that the script-writers did not do any research on what a North Carolina 3rd grader was supposed to know.

      I am sure that some high school standards were higher in the past but I think this is because many fewer people went to high school. Science standards are considerably higher than they were pre-Sputnik, and high school students are required to take higher level math courses than they were in the past. Of course, how much they actually take with them after the course is over is another question.

      I suspect the average knowledge and skill of American 22-year-olds hasn’t changed much.

      • They’re taking more and higher-level math and science classes BUT they’re needing remedial classes at CC and college levels. The former didn’t exist until a couple of decades ago. Why? Because ES and MS are not enforcing mastery of basic arithmetic, without which higher math is impossible. They’re not really taking those courses because they can’t do the work.

        • Mike in texas says:

          ES and MS school teachers can’t enforce mastery of basic math skills. The high stakes tests imposed on schools by “reformers” don’t test mastery of the basic skills

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Mike, would you support high stakes tests that test mastery of basic skills, so schools really could “enforce mastery of basic math skills”?

      • You can do more than just rely on your suspicion, which is only important to you as it is entirely subjective. You can look at what the average adult was reading at different time periods because magazines, popular books, and newspapers aim their content to their audiences in order to maximize circulation. Have you noticed how in the past few decades the Reader’s Digest (except for all the drug information) has become about as hard to read as the Weekly Readers they handed out in school?
        Compare this 1950s Saturday Evening Post article about JFK – http://saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/flbk/The_Senates_Gay_Young_Bachelor/#/1/ – with this recent one from the same publication – http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2013/09/28/archives/post-perspective/on-the-campaign-trail.html. Note the easier vocabulary and simpler, shorter sentences. And that’s just one example. I think the average knowledge and skill of American adults has been deteriorating, and I can present evidence–not just an optimistic feeling–to back up that opinion.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          You may be right. The Readers Digest and the Saturday Evening Post are definitely easier to read than they were in the 1950s. I’m not sure what to make of that, though.

          Both magazines are very different than they used to be. The Post has gone through several ownership and market positioning changes. It used to be a “middle-brow” magazine, very careful not to be low class. This was reflected in the level of the writing. Readers Digest used to front each issue with the statement that it contained “an article a day of lasting interest.” But at least a decade ago, it junked that idea, dropped most of its coverage of government and foreign affairs, and turned itself into a six by seven inch competitor to Entertainment Tonight and Dr. Oz.

  6. “I suppose that’s why you’re concentrating on finding excuses, hey gahrie?”

    Not an excuse…an explanation

    • In either case, reasons to absolve you of the responsibility to do your job. Of course if it is an explanation the question then becomes why you should continue to receive a pay check? If the work can’t be done then the money’s being wasted.

  7. Mike in Texas says:

    Ahh, classic Allen. Can’t provide facts to support his arguments so he resorts to insults.

    • Ted Craig says:

      Mike in Texas,.

      You do realize that a smaller percentage of a larger number is still a larger number, right? The U.S. GDP is not only the largest is the world. it’s twice the size of second-place China. In pure dollars, the U.S. is the largest spender in the world:
      http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=24264&Cr=education&Cr1=#.Up8kUVpuJq7.

      But even if you want to stick to percentage of GDP within the OECD, you’ll find the U.S. is the fourth highest spender when you factor in private education:
      http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/factbook-2011-en/10/02/04/10-02-04-g1.html?contentType=/ns/StatisticalPublication,/ns/Chapter&itemId=/content/chapter/factbook-2011-89-en&containerItemId=/content/serial/18147364&accessItemIds=&mimeType=text/html.

      • Mike in texas says:

        Yes, I do understand. Do you understand larger numbers of students will require larger expenditures of money?

        • Mike In Texas,

          Yes, which is why the expenditures by the U.S. are so high. You seem hung up on this percentage issue, which isn’t the same as expenditures. And even then, the U.S. spends more than almost anybody else, as the second chart shows. Did you look at the charts?

    • Ahh, classic Mike. Has no response when his misrepresentations are called out so resorts to more misrepresentations.

      • Hey, whatever happened to that plan where allen was going to drive to Texas and you guys were going to get a room together visit Mike in Texas’s classroom?

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Actually, plans are afoot for a cage match. One will say, “Am not” and the other will say, “Are too.” The first will reply, “Am not” and the other will rejoin, “Are too.” This will continue for an hour, after which they will switch scripts and play the second half.

          A video will be made and sold as a sleep aid.

          • Mike in texas says:

            And miss the part where I change my answer to Allen’s, and he gets confused and changes his answer to mine?

        • Mike in texas says:

          I needed info from Allen to get it approved, and he refused to provide it.

          • Gee Mike, that’s not the way I remember things going.

            You played Randi Weingarten to my John Stossel with the identical results – you beat a hasty retreat when I responded with “sure, where and when?”.

            Of course, it’s an idiotic challenge to begin with the more so since it’s never issued as an honest challenge but a way to try to shut down criticism. But I can just see how the conversation would go between you and whatever administrative functionary has the tedious task of listening to the request you have no slightest intention of making.

            Mike: How do I go about arranging for someone to take over my class for a week?

            Admin: I know I’m going to regret asking this but why the hell would you, and more importantly I, want this “someone” to take over your class for a week?

            Mike: This guy’s critical of the public education system and the best way I can think of to shut him up is to challenge him to take over my class for a week. I know it’s a stupid tactic but I’m pretty much out of ploys.

            Admin: Get out.

            Just out of curiosity, does anyone believe Mike’s lifted a finger to move this challenge forward?

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not sure it’s all education. Some of the stuff CT references in the study don’t seem to depend on literacy in particular or school seat time in general. They look like an inability to just….think.
    Once, many years ago, a client called our office and wanted an insurance company’s 800 number. I gave it to her. She called my boss and told him I’d given her the wrong number. Turns out I’d neglected to tell her to dial “1” first.
    Guy working maintenance in public housing referred to a woman who was concerned that her furnace kept going on and off. He checked it out and was trying to explain the function of a thermostat. She was getting hostile, thinking, presumably, that this was another example of The Man taking something from her. A neighbor remarked that her furnace works fine and if it gets too hot, she just opens a window.
    Couple of other examples occur to me, but they’re the same kind of thing. It might be infantilization due to the welfare society. Thinking is simply not required. The simiplest things–thermostats–are a mystery because nobody ever told her. Now, you have to take a science course I suppose to hear of a bimetallic strip, if those are still being used. But that a thermostat has a function ought to be known without recourse to, say, NCLB or the school board’s funding. Who doesn’t know you have to dial “1”? People using cell phones, I suppose.
    Point is, at the bottom we have issues that are not a function of education and, if we could force feed a mimimal amount of literacy, would probably still remain.

    • One of the inevitable results of living in the wealthiest society the world’s ever known.

      If our fur-wearing forebearers had been similarly ignorant of their surroundings they would swiftly have been reduced to dire wolf chow. But our wealth insulates us from the consequences of our ignorance, mostly, and we’re free to assign a higher importance to entertaining diversions then our prospective-meal forefathers could afford to.

      • Except that we don’t live in the wealthiest society the world has ever known.; Canada, Australia, Norway, and Denmark are just a few of the countries that have surpassed us in per capita income. Also, because income distribution is more is more equitable (CEO’s in Canada make 20X the wage their median worker as opposed to 273X for CEO’s in the US), and government services more extensive, the average person lives much better than the difference in per capita income would suggest.

        • There is a concept of GDP with purchasing power parity included; except that US is listed as sixth, seventh or eighth depending on the agency doing the ranking.

        • I think if you subtracted the cost of credible military from the per capita GDP of Canada, Australia, Norway, and Denmark you’d find they’re rather less wealthy then they are with the U.S. carrying the load.

          As for that equitable distribution of income, dream on. Socialism’s dying and with it all the phony “egalitarianism” that inevitably requires a ruling class with privileges those without political influence can only dream of. That’s part of the reason the public education system’s dying here in the U.S. although the more proximate cause is the widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of the excuses for failure. You’ve just got to come up with some new ones and I just don’t think there are any.

          • These countries have an income distribution similar to what the United States had under President Eisenhower. Ike was no socialist. He did support good wages, an excellent infrastructure, and having the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.

            Funny thing about the pro-inequality people, the world leader that most supports their goal of low wages, a crumbling infrastructure, and tax breaks for the wealthy is Vladimir Putin. I’d choose Ike over Putin any day.

  9. cranberry says:

    Mike Petrilli’s kids haven’t reached high school yet. He writes, “So the second assumption must be that “poverty” has a bigger impact on math performance for fifteen-year-olds than for younger students. But I can’t imagine why.”

    ACT. SAT. and the tutoring and test prep which come with that, for affluent kids, explain the difference. In our neck of the woods, I could (but don’t) drive my kids to Kumon, Kaplan, Sylvan, The Russian School of Math, and numerous other smaller providers, including private tutors. High school students advertise their tutoring services in the newspaper.

    In other words, students from middle class families do test prep these days, particularly in math, with an eye to college admissions tests. Parents make certain any middle- or high school student who struggles in math will receive a tutor.

    • ACT SAT and test preparation has not started by the time these kids take the PISA for 15 year olds.

  10. cranberry says:

    As for the “high flyer” problem, I have a few ideas. The framework of my argument may seem contradictory–please read the whole thing.

    1) When schools track, they do it at too early a point in time. There should not be a “gifted and talented” track in elementary school.

    Why?

    Well, as we get older, we know more things. It is too easy to prep a young kid to do well on intelligence tests. See New York City’s gifted and talented program, and independent school admissions process, for details. Also, a child from an educated household will post higher scores on tests based on vocabulary at early ages, due to environment. That doesn’t mean the child is exceptional.

    I do accept that IQ tests are generally reliable, and relatively stable–as long as the person taking the test hasn’t been prepped for the exam. If they’ve been prepped, the test is not valid. Making high-stakes GT placement decisions for young children on the basis of one exam tilts the table to the affluent parents who are willing to game the system.

    The placement itself then excludes a certain number of “real,” unprepped, smart kids, who are then consigned to a lower track. Even if the decision was first made on a flawed basis, children offered a more enriched and challenging course of study will tend to learn more. It’s hard to beat the cumulative effect of learning over time.

  11. cranberry says:

    2) The cutoffs for GT placement are too narrow. If you really want “high flyers,” you should be setting up programs for the TOP THIRD of students, not the top three percent.

    Why? Well, what are you looking for in tests? Quite a few kids with capacity to learn only start paying attention when the material gets more complex. If you grade on silly, random errors in “easy” material, you will exclude many of the kids who have the potential to be high flyers at 15.

    Also, many smart kids are not teacher-pleasers.

    3) What are the rewards for displaying mastery? More work? If the work is boring in the first place, what incentive is there for a student to do well on it, if the reward for doing well is More Boring Work? It’s like the old joke about first prize being a week in Detroit, and second prize is two weeks in Detroit.

    Compliance and teacher-pleasing are two traits which do not align neatly with intelligence.

  12. cranberry says:

    4) Limit group work. A group moves as quickly as its slowest member. Group work generally punish the quick and diligent, and reward the slow and lazy. It also serves to disguise student weakness.

    5) Stop forcing bright students to be unpaid tutors. If students finish work early, or have mastered a topic, allow them to read ahead or to pursue independent research. If the reward for doing well is working with kids with a bad attitude, whom the adults can’t help, many students will choose not to stand out.

    6) Reward school administrators for the number of students scoring in the “advanced” category. For years and year in our state, there was no incentive for schools to move students from proficient to advanced. Proficient was just as good as advanced, as far as rankings and such.

    • Most of the responses to this post are hysteric; the PISA results (both for all students and high flying students) is a composite of four nations that make up US, a black, a Hispanic, a White and an Asian nation. Each of the four nations has its own distribution. The lower scores represent higher percentages of Hispanic children taking the PISA tests. If anything, the only surprising thing sis the slow drop in MATH scores of White children. All of the above responses will not doa damn thing to improve the results. I recommend changing the ethnic percentages in the mixture for a workable solution.

      • So teaching Hispanic kids in a more efficient, effective ways isn’t going to help them learn more? They’re just physically unable due to their DNA? Guess we better just kick them out of school and back to the fields to pick berries and stop wasting all this money on schools.
        (I’m part Hispanic and did an internship at Farmworker Justice Fund, in case you worry that I’m serious. I reject the notion that having some Iberian or Native American blood condemns one to being dumber than your average white person; I know some pretty dumb white people. I think culture is far more of an influence.)

        • There is no point in making extravagant statements that Hispanics are fit to pick strawberries. In fact, the US does an excellent job of teaching Hispanics as shown by a straightforward comparison of Hispanic PISA results with those of Brazil, MEXICO, Costa Rica, etc.

          The question here was why the flat PISA scores, and why so few percentage of people making the 5 and the 6. The answer is (1) increasing percentage of Hispanics as a percentage of those taking the PISA tests, and (2) smaller percentages of Hispanics getting 5 and 6.

          If you may have noted that JoanneJacobs.com iss a teaching and educational website. The idea that teachers and schools have some magic wand that will make all children perform the same is laughable. However Kudos to California for having the Hispanic kids perform much better than their parent nations.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Nothing expensive about flash cards or my granddaughter’s kingergarten teacher’s idea of “popcorn words”. They’re like flash cards for words.
            Parents can make them, use them once or twice a day. Or not.
            I know of some ex-pub ed young women in upscale ‘burbs getting $60/hr for tutoring.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          C T
          Most folks agree about the culture.
          Problem is, as Sowell demonstrated, culture–some of its aspects–survive being in other nations for generations. IIRC, one of his examples was that a couple of hundred years ago, the Czar imported a bunch of German farmers for their skill and technology. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of European Russia was German in ancestry to the single digits. Forty percent of the Czar’s officer corps was germanic an ancestry. A somewhat more involved example about Brazilians of Japanese ancestry preferring to marry other B of J ancestry whose ancestors came from the same part of Japan, north islands or south islands, as their own ancestors.
          So, for practical purposes, if there’s a cultural problem, it may as well be genetic without sustained and directed efforts.

          • I dont know if people are being serious or facetious; how can culture affect the test scores of say, a fourth grader? Do the above posts mean that culture degraded the Hispanic test scores, and increased the Asian test scores with respect to a median.

            Once again, I want to clarify that the schools do a good job pushing up Hispanic test scores much higher than what would be expected in the native country; however, if you expect some magical way that culture or schools to take these tst scores to the next level, is fooling ourselves. I think people saw too many “stand and deliver” lkind of movies.

          • I understand that culture is difficult to change. (Just look at the pushback when one tries to change school culture. 😉 ) Vijay said above that the way to improve educational outcomes is to change ethnic makeup. What a defeatist attitude that is. Why try to improve things if we can just blame lower scores on genetics?
            When I was struggling in my college physics class (the electromagnetics “washout” course), I was sitting at the car repair shop one day trying to figure out a concept and just not getting it. A middle-aged man from Mexico with an appearance of some indigenous blood and a life of manual labor saw what I was working on and knew exactly what I was doing. He said he’d learned it back in high school in Mexico. Besides being humbled, I realized that curriculum and expectations make a huge difference in what people actually learn. I also know a young immigrant from Ghana; he said school here is easy. Whose fault is it if this teenager’s black friends do worse academically than he does? They are all African-American, but the kid who moved here from Ghana is going to be ahead because he was expected to work harder in Ghana. Choices in school curriculum, instruction, and standards do make a difference, even in the face of genetic and cultural differences.

          • “how can culture affect the test scores of say, a fourth grader?”
            Some cultural differences that affect test scores of a fourth grader include:
            1) Less two-way conversation with parents and so diminished ability to develop vocabulary and verbal skills
            2) Few books in home; literacy not a value
            3) Education and credentials not valued
            4) Less respect for teachers and others who might mete out discipline
            5) Video games and TV being used as babysitters on a regular basis
            6) Parents who don’t/can’t help their children get the homework done
            7) Substance abuse in the home
            8) Poor work ethic and/or criminal behavior modeled by parents and other adults
            9) Chaotic home life with child having formed no secure attachments
            10) No regular bedtimes
            Etc.

          • cranberry says:

            Vijay: “I dont know if people are being serious or facetious; how can culture affect the test scores of say, a fourth grader?”

            To add to CT’s list, off the top of my head. Does your family visit the local public library? Does the family take part in free cultural and education-oriented events offered by local institutions? Libraries offer story times, free talks on child-raising topics, free lectures by local authors, etc. Local colleges and schools offer free events or low-cost opportunities, such as vacation camps with STEM themes, or demonstrations of topics of interest. Who takes advantage of these events? (And I can think of lots of white families who will be found at the soccer field rather than the library event, on Saturday afternoons.)

            If a child has trouble with academic topics, does the parent arrange to talk with a teacher? Does a parent arrange for testing, if he/she thinks it’s necessary? Does a parent attend school committee meetings?

            There are complaints about “pushy” parents, but some of those parents are actively engaged in their school communities. The skill set to question the teacher’s authority (in a respectful manner) is also culturally determined.

            A child whose parents seek out advice and resources will be less likely to fall behind, which does influence test scores. For example, the child with vision problems will do better if someone notices, and gets her glasses.

    • I’ll second most of your ideas, with three cheers. Regarding number one, I agree with the test prep issue for ES entry, but ES is k-5 and that’s a lot of time, which shouldn’t be wasted. I think that kids should be able to progress (by subject) as soon as they’ve mastered their work – and I don’t mean “enrichment” (aka artsy projects), I mean more and more challenging material at a faster pace. I also think that kids should be able to be re-assigned (up and down), depending on their actual performance. Teacher-pleasing shouldn’t be part of the assessment. – as it too often is.

      • Oops! Forgot to add: Ditch the artsy projects, which waste enormous spans of time, both in class and time at home which could be put to better use with academic work.

        “Ditch artsy projects” does not mean “ditch art.” Art, music, drama, and sports should be part of the school day, for all students.

        I disagree, though, with the “don’t waste time in elementary school.” As students get older, they can learn more. However, adding worksheets to kindergarten does not (in my opinion) create 4th graders who are more advanced than they would have been. A year at 5 years old is very different from a year at 8 year old (and so on.) Kids who have never visited a museum or country fair have deficits, even if they’re ahead in the worksheet count.

        Challenging _enough_, at a fast _enough_ pace. There is a level of intensity which is counterproductive; kids can burn out. Trying to race ahead can rob kids of time they need to reflect and discover their own interests.

        For example, a kid who likes Japanese Anime could be encouraged to learn to draw anime characters, to learn Japanese, to learn the history of anime, to learn Japanese history and culture, etc. He could eventually create a presentation to his class about the role of samurai in feudal Japan, or what anime series are hot in Japan right now. Long-term, he might well learn more about everything through his independent interests than he would by spending more time in elementary school on skills he’s already mastered.

        • I’m in no way suggesting that ES should be a pressure cooker, ruled by worksheets. I’m talking about grouping kids with similar academic needs together – by subject, since many kids aren’t equally balanced. Although my grandson’s teacher does give him some math challenge work (! which he loves), he still has to spend time, in class and at home, doing math he knew at least a year ago. He could be using that time to learn math he doesn’t already know, which he would love to do. He’s been doing mental math at home for at least two years and I recently observed him doing 3 x 198, 96/3, adding/subtracting 2-digit numbers, counting to 100 by all single digit numbers well enough that he can quickly get the answer for 7 x 6 (essentially knows many of his times tables, just not to automaticity) and can quickly count the family coin jar. He also can handle the kinds of fractions encountered in cooking, including doubling a recipe and showing how to measure a specific quantity with different cups.. With a 5″ explanation of sales tax, he correctly calculated 6 x $0.50 with 6% sales tax and 6% sales tax on a $10 purchase (which my local bakery can’t do). Adding 60 + 9 with the aid of little pictures (6 bundles of 10 and 9 singles) is not what he should be doing with his time.

          • cranberry says:

            Oh, yes, I agree. Although I think that example falls under the heading of “excessive arts & crafts,” too. However, beware of assuming because he can do some math functions, he understands everything. A child who can calculate easily should learn concepts in greater depth than his classmates who are still learning addition. (although drawing 69 little pictures still is a way to use up lots of class time, for little reward.) You would hope there might be a teacher who could ask him to think up other ways to bundle 69 objects, such as (13 x 5) + 4, etc.

  13. Steve Sailer is all over this. Start here and work your way through the newer posts:

    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2013/12/pisa-day.html

  14. Joanne Jacobs readers,

    Some of you might recall long comments I have made here in the past. I expect I will be making other long comments here in the future. Joanne Jacobs does an excellent job of keeping her readers informed about what is happening in Education in America. Therefore, I make the following invitation to all of you.

    The Davidson Institute for Talent Development hosts an excellent Gifted Issues Discussion Forum at its website. Yesterday, I started a forum thread there titled “Proposed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” which can be accessed at: http://giftedissues.davidsongifted.org/BB/ubbthreads.php/topics/176327.html#Post176327

    Please read my introductory posting for the thread, and please join in if the topic I have created interests you. I make the invitation here because anyone who is commenting on this particular Joanne Jacobs posting would certainly be interested in my proposals.

    Of course, invite all others you know who might be interested to join in, too. Thank you.

    Steven A. Sylwester