U.S. High-School Students Slip in Global Rankings
U.S. 15-year-olds made no progress on recent international achievement exams and fell further in the rankings, reviving a debate about America’s ability to compete in a global economy.
The results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which are being released on Tuesday, show that teenagers in the U.S. slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathers and analyzes the data in the U.S.
The PISA is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A representative sample of about 510,000 students took the exam in 65 countries and locales, representing 80% of the world economy.
U.S. scores have been basically flat since the exams were first given in the early 2000s. They hover at the average for countries in the OECD except in math, where American students are behind the curve. Meanwhile, some areas—Poland and Ireland, for example—improved and moved ahead of the U.S., while the Chinese city of Shanghai, Singapore and Japan posted significantly higher scores.
The stagnant U.S. results are certain to spark more hand-wringing by politicians, business leaders and policy makers concerned that American students are not keeping pace with counterparts in other countries.
They are also likely to fuel the debate over which policy fixes could be instituted to boost results. Many U.S. schools already have undergone decades of policy overhauls, including grading teachers on student test scores, expanding school-choice options and instituting more rigorous math and reading standards.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a “picture of educational stagnation” and said it was at “odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world.”
But Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said the data show the U.S. has been going down the “wrong path,” and said high-scoring countries don’t use student test scores to pay and fire teachers or to rate and punish schools. “There is a road map out there,” he said. “But we are not following it.”
In the U.S., about 6,000 randomly selected students from 161 public and private schools participated. For the first time this year, Florida, Connecticut and Massachusetts tested enough students to get state-level data. The two Northeastern states equaled or bettered the OECD averages on all exams, while Florida fell below in math and science. Other areas that aren’t countries, such as Shanghai, tested enough students to have individual rankings.
Unlike many other standardized exams that assess students’ knowledge, PISA measures whether students can apply that knowledge to real-life problems.
The exams are scored on a 0-to-1,000 point scale. U.S. teenagers scored 497 in science and 498 in reading, tying the OECD averages. They scored 481 in math, below the OECD average of 494. The U.S. positions in the international rankings include numerous statistical ties.
Experts caution against reading too much into the rankings without a deeper understanding of the differences in socioeconomic and racial composition among countries. The U.S., for example, has more children living in poverty than do many other industrialized countries, and 15% of the variance in test scores can be explained by socioeconomic status, according to the OECD analysis.
The analysis found a strong correlation between higher test scores and students’ school attendance and punctuality. But it found a low connection between class size and test scores.
Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has studied PISA results, said policy makers often draw “oversimplified conclusions” from international tests. “These results don’t tell anything about the quality of teaching or the quality of the curriculum in countries,” he said.
For the last few years, many U.S. educators and policy makers have looked to Finland, noting its high test scores and laser-like focus on attracting and retaining the best teachers. Although Finland still posts high scores, they have slid in the past few years.
Poland, on the other hand, has seen sharp improvement. The only European country to have avoided the recession, Poland undertook a host of education overhauls in 1999, including delaying by one year the system that places students into academic or vocational tracks, and crafting better systems to identify struggling students and get them help.
"Poland launched a massive set of reforms and, while we cannot say for sure they caused the improvement, they certainly are…a sort of plausible explanation," said Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills at the OECD.
In Massachusetts, educators and policy makers credit the good showing, in part, to a 1993 effort that boosted spending and ushered in rigorous standards and achievement tests that students have to pass to graduate.
Andrew Vega, an eighth-grade teacher at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston, said that when he moved from California, he “was completely blown away by what we ask students to do.” He said the state exams are so rigorous “the teaching quality also has to be higher-quality.” He said he focuses on teaching students how to think critically.
"My job is: No matter where you go, you’re going to do well."
Still Separate and Unequal, Generations After Brown v. Board
May 17 marked the 57th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation in U.S. public schools unconstitutional. Also today, American schools are more segregated than they were four decades ago.
If eradicating racial segregation in education was the original civil rights battle, it continues to be the most enduring one. A court decision that called “separate but equal” schools unlawful led to a couple hopeful decades of racial integration. But today most U.S. kids go to schools that are both racially and socioeconomically homogeneous.
Around 40 percent of black and Latino students in the U.S. are in schools than are over 90 percent black and Latino, according to a 2009 study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. The schools that black and Latino kids are concentrated in are very often high-poverty schools, too. The average black student goes to a school where 59 percent of their classmates live in poverty, while the average Latino student goes to a school that’s 57 percent poor.
And it’s not just blacks and Latinos who are racially isolated. White students go to schools that are 77 percent white, and 32 percent poor.
The Obama administration, which is leading an aggressive school reform agenda, knows what’s going on. In a major speech calling for the overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged in understated terms the re-segregation of U.S. schools, as well as the fatigue with everything that’s been attempted to address it.
"Most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms," Duncan said of students growing up in the civil rights era, adding, "Many still are today, and we must work together to change that."
"We’ve had five decades of reforms, countless studies, watershed reports like ‘A Nation at Risk,’ and repeated affirmations and commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national priority," Duncan said. "And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future."
But the Obama administration has been otherwise silent on re-segregation in schools, even as its reform policies have targeted poor communities of color where the lowest-performing schools are located. Twenty-first century racial homogeneity in U.S. schools is a product of decades of regressive court decisions as well as residential segregation.
"There are no significant state or federal programs and little private philanthropy addressing policy to either produce better integrated schools with more racial and economic diversity or to train teachers and students about ways to more effectively run impoverished multiracial schools," wrote the UCLA study’s author Gary Orfield.
Part of it comes from collective fatigue. The initial, post-Brown push for integrated classrooms gave way over the years to wars over busing and several Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that forced schools to drop race as a consideration for dealing with school assignments. The Court’s 2007 decision limiting Seattle and Louisville school districts from implementing desegregation policies completed its long slide away from Brown v. Board. Meanwhile, education advocates shifted their calls from demands for integration to calls for equity. Alongside that shift, a numbers and testing obsession was taking hold, catalyzed by the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report Duncan named. That obsession now dominates education reform.
Integrating schools is still a worthwhile goal. Researchers have found that desegregation, while always thorny politically, is one of the most direct methods for raising the education achievement of students of color, especially those that are poor. Columbia University researchers found that when they controlled for other outside socioeconomic factors, students in schools where black and Latino kids were isolated from kids of other races had fewer math and literacy skills — that their educational development was in effect limited by the racial composition of their schools.
And researchers at the University of Connecticut evaluated new strategies like those popularized by North Carolina’s Wake County school district. There, students in wealthier neighborhoods can attend magnet schools in poorer neighborhoods, while students in poorer neighborhoods attend schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Student achievement improved in the system. As an added bonus, researchers also found that allowing kids of different backgrounds to hang out with each other improved students’ racial attitudes about each other.
Still, courts and tea partier-dominated school boards have continually hampered integration efforts.
Today, the major thrusts of education reform, echoed and pushed in Obama administration policy, are teacher accountability through testing and charter-school expansion. In this iteration of the school reform saga, race is everywhere — acknowledging the existence of the achievement gap is an uncontroversial statement these days. But actually naming, and addressing, the roots of educational inequities is passé.
As the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein told me when I was researching the impacts of the recession on education in communities of color, “Everybody acknowledges differences in achievement but nobody wants to address the inequalities that produce them.”
Indeed, the discourse today is schizophrenic in many ways. Teachers, for instance, are singled out as both the ultimate solutions to and the biggest culprits for our nation’s education woes. Duncan and his colleagues, the celebrity school reformers like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and the big-city mayors who’ve backed their reforms often laud and eviscerate teachers in the same breath.
The Obama administration has made adopting punitive teacher accountability policies that evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores a requirement for states that want some federal education money. Through Race to the Top, Obama’s marquee education reform project, states have been asked to adopt merit-pay schemes that also tie teachers’ jobs to their students’ performance on standardized tests. States have also been asked to lift caps on charter schools and designate failing schools for takeover by, among other entities, outside charter groups.
States are not, however, rewarded for adopting the integration policies that education researchers have found to create such change.
"What’s missing from the debate is a recognition that teachers and schools alone are not the most important influence on a child’s achievement," said Rothstein.
A coalition of race-conscious reformers are promoting a plan they’ve dubbed the Bolder, Broader Approach to Education, which pushes for a racially explicit and holistic approach to addressing education inequity. There’s noticeably no mention of teacher accountability schemes in the three-point version of that plan. It instead calls for high quality early education for all kids, starting from birth and going all the way up through pre-kindergarten. It also calls for high-quality and consistent after school and summer programs for kids, and routine and preventative health care for kids.
"Low-income children have 30 percent more absences than middle-class kids just due to health alone," Rothstein said. The idea is to mimic the supports that middle-class kids have regular access to. "Unless we do something there’s still going to be something that’s much more important influencing kids’ education than the quality of their teachers."
It’s not simply a matter of misplaced priorities. Where educational inequities are concerned, the diagnosis has always been easier than deciding on the course of treatment. Nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we’ve yet to resolve the fundamental question of how to deliver high quality public education to kids of all races.
And after decades of wrangling over possible fixes, the de facto re-segregation of American schools is something that the education reform movement, including the Obama administration, have all but given up on addressing. If integrating public schools was once the answer to bringing equity to the classroom, these days, most people are too fatigued and frustrated to even try.
But now more than ever, mustering the energy to address, head-on, the roots of educational inequities is an issue of utmost urgency. Students of color are 44 percent, and growing, of the U.S. public school system. Racial segregation is a legacy we’ve yet to shake off, nowhere more than in American public schools, where students of color are educated in schools that are today both separate and unequal.
Sometimes when we are feeling down
take some time to look around
for no matter how bad things do seem
there is someone else who thinks you’re living the dream
Samantha J - Tight Skirt
Hey you girl innah di tight up skirt.
AJR - I’m Ready
I won’t forget you but I may forget your name.
"A better world is possible."