Field of Science

Poor US Education Meme Infects the Minnesota Daily

It's bad enough reading the standard misinformation regarding K-12 education in the popular press, but now it has infected our student paper too. The editorial compares the curricula of Germany with that of South Korea as educational systems that could be modeled to improve US education. But the question, the answer to which is assumed in this editorial, is, is the US education system doing poorly?
Dunces unite

Based on the popular press, you'd think US education is in complete disarray. This idea is supported by tests that compare the US to many other countries.

For example, Pearson ranks the US as 17th overall in cognitive skills and educational attainment (Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore rank 1-5). The US is between Belgium and Hungary and for the record Germany comes in at a devastating 15th. These rankings spanned 2006 - 2010.

Furthermore, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 rankings have US 15 year olds at 17th in reading, 23rd in math, and 21st in science out of the 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. (The US ranked 36th in math of all countries/areas tested.) 

Highlander ranks higher than
US in math and kicking ass

These rankings are problematic for several reasons.

Zero Sum Games: For the US to move up in its rankings other countries must go down. As the Highlander says 'There can be only one.' Is the US education system likely to be that much stronger than education system of the United Kingdom? Germany? Japan? Canada? France? Belgium? I'm not suggesting we should not try to attain the greatest achievement possible, but don't you think these other countries want to have student success? Even if we thought of it first (we didn't), other countries would likely have noticed and followed suit.

Apples and Oranges: The US is not a monolith of education. If anything we're a monolith of stupidity. We have a decentralized education system. Each state can do what it wants, thus states like Tennessee and Louisiana, which overtly teach biblical creationism, may do poorly on science exams. Using the US as a single entity for comparison sake does reveal major shortcomings in our educational system. But it's basically worthless, unless your goal is to eliminate public education and replace it with a mechanism to move more taxpayer money into corporate hands.

From Slate
 If we look at states individually, something different emerges.

On the PISA exam, the US math average was 481, placing us at 36th of OECD. The average for the OECD countries was 494, putting the US well below average. But if we look at individual states we find that average in Massachusetts was 514, Connecticut was 506, and Florida was 467. Two states doing well above the OECD average and one state 4 points below Croatia, a country recently established from the ruins of Yugoslavia.

Similar results are seen in the science averages. US average: 497; OECD average 501; Massachusetts average 527; Connecticut average 521, and Florida average 485.

Any guesses on reading literacy? US average: 498; OECD average 496; Massachusetts average 527; Connecticut average 521, and Florida average 492.

Do you see a trend there? It looks like some states, Massachusetts, do extremely well helping promote a strong US score. Yet other states, I'm looking at you Florida, fuck it up for everyone. You'ld think the talking heads would be asking 'what's working in top performing states like MA, NH, MN, etc?' or even 'what's not working in bottom performing states like FL, MS, AL, etc?'

I bet people in Massachusetts really want to overhaul their successful education system in order to try out a new one that might improve Florida's scores.

We spend so much time disparaging teachers that many rankings done in the US use teacher tenure, teacher seniority, and charter school availability as major criteria in their evaluations of state education. Regardless of student outcomes! If a state has teacher tenure and great student achievement, should that state be dinged? For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (not affiliated with Congress) came out with their rankings: Massachusetts received a C; Florida a B.

I suggest you go back on look at the PISA scores and then let that digest a minute. If you think the PISA test is a Muslim plot, you could also look at the USA USA USA National Assessment of Educational Progress NAEP rankings: MA, with MN and NH, first in 4th grade math; Fl 30th. MA first in 8th grade math; FL 37th. MA, first in 4th grade reading; FL 13th. MA first in 8th grade reading; FL 33rd. (Was that a complete sweep?) Yet the ALEC says FL is a clear letter grade better than MA. WTF?!?! (ALEC cares little about education and more about policy that ends public education: Vermont and Rhode Island received D+'s yet were 2nd and 6th in the country on the NAEP tests respectively; Utah B- and South Carolina C were 41st and 50th on the NAEP test respectively.)

For the record, MA and other top performing states do well across economic spectra. These results are not simply due to socio-economic differences. However, poverty clearly has a profound effect on education achievement. 

Coming full circle, it's not a zero sum game here either. For FL to improve its ranking other states have to lose positions. The point is that using the US as an education collective to compare against actual education collectives is ridiculous.

Regardless, I am tired of hearing about the travesty of the US education system, when in fact many states are doing great, but are dragged down in national surveys by poor performing states (I'm looking at you deep south). We should look at the data coming from these assessments and tests and determine what is valid (are students in Singapore better prepared for the test due to timing of the curricula? do all students go to school and are they all tested in China?). We should also celebrate our accomplishments, YAY Massachusetts, and recognize our problems, I'm looking at you Florida, I'm also looking at Minnesota which is doing great on these tests but still has a huge achievement gap.

So thanks Minnesota Daily for getting me to write this. For the record, we don't need to look to South Korea or even Germany to fix our education system. First, we have to realize the US education system does not exist, so it can not be broken and need to be fixed. Second, we only have to look at our neighboring states to see what works and what doesn't. Third, if there are applicable educational innovations developed overseas or even up North, I'm all in favor of trying them. But realize much of our system works well and let's not fuck it all up because of Florida.

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