Monday, May 22, 2006

Well, well, American Schools Get a Great Review

Recent articles in the Courant and elsewhere inform us that government statistics are being disseminated for the expressed intent of deceiving us [you don't say].

Today, we were told that the story about minority owned businesses doing so well was not only wrong but backward.

No surprise here. In my profession, Information Technologies, American workers are shafted routinely while the CBIA laments how hard it is to get good help - so, please send more docile, inexpensive labor from overseas to; sniff, sniff; help these poor companies purge themselves of workers nearing retirement.

Yeah, numbers can lie when you've got an administration that walks that walk.

So here's another example of the same thing about our so-called "FAILING" schools. No lie is too large to try to kill public education there's just one problem:

A snippet from: The Myth of America's Failing Schools by Tamim Ansary

Oddly enough, these numbers don't really support what "everyone knows." In the very year that A Nation at Risk was bemoaning a "rising tide of mediocrity," the NAEP seemed to show American students doing about the same as their counterparts had done 20 years earlier, even though the educational system had expanded tremendously and was serving, at that point, a far more diverse population of students, including many more with a limited command of English.

As for international comparisons, every four years, over the last decade, the NCES has participated in an international assessment called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This report compares test results from 25 to 50 countries in various categories. It focuses only on mathematics and hard science because those subjects are culturally and linguistically neutral, so the same test questions can be given to kids of different countries. Data was collected in 1995, 1999, and 2003, and will be collected again in 2007.

What the numbers show
According to the TIMSS, the United States is not "dead last" (as journalist Charles Krauthammer so colorfully put it) but "dead-middle," or a smidgen above. In 2003, overall, it scored higher than 13 countries and lower than 11 others. The countries beating us included Latvia, Hungary, and the Netherlands. The ones we beat included Norway, Iran, and Slovenia. It's hard to see a pattern that correlates definitively to economic competitiveness here.

Besides, statistics are more ambiguous than they seem, because there's always a social context to numbers. Consider one troubling pattern that does emerge consistently in the TIMSS reports. American students rank above average in the fourth grade but drop below average in 12th grade.

What's going on here?
There may be several factors, but here's one that education writer Gerald Bracey points out. In many countries, toward the end of high school, students take a single high-stakes test that determines whether they will go to college and thereby determines what social class they'll be in for life.

Kids cram for that test as if their lives depended on it because their lives do. In South Korea, there's a saying that students who sleep four hours a night will go to college, but those who sleep five hours a night will not.

Japan has a whole second school system of jukus or "cram schools" that many students attend every day after regular school. Cram schools!

I find it interesting that in India, about 7 percent of the college-age population is in college. I'm thinking Indian students must work desperately in that last year of high school to squeeze into the 7 percent. American students are more lackadaisical because here about 63 percent of high school graduates go to college the next year and the others can go later--this is a country of second chances.

If you test two groups of students, one of which has been cramming for months and one of which hasn't, the former will score higher. But are they better educated? Will they know more in a year? Four years? Ten? It's not a given. A test score is a snapshot of a moment.

So you're left with a circular proposition, it seems. "Failing schools" is the explanation of a national problem. The national problem is finally the proof that the schools are failing. If that correlation is valid, we should see the perceived problems disappearing after school reforms.

Has this historically been the case? That depends on how you look at it. The former Soviet Union directed national resources into producing scientists and engineers during the space race era, but that doesn't necessarily mean Russia is better off today. Maybe "failing schools" is not the only explanation of the poor test scores problem.

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