Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Global Competitiveness Narrative

Just a few days ago, the Obama administration advocated more time in school as a remedy for public school's mythical failure to create a globally competitive workforce.

Libby Quaid reports in More school: Obama would curtail summer vacation
Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

"Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Duncan told the AP. "I want to just level the playing field."

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it's not true they all spend more time in school.

Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

As a Democrat, I'm ashamed that Duncan is leading this charge. The article goes on to perpetrate even more misinformation and false claims including the assertion that studies show more time is effective.

In contrast, Larry Cuban in an article entitled The Perennial Reform: Fixing School Time appearing in Phi Delta Kappa International exposes the truer problem:
If the evidence suggests that, at best, a longer school year or day or restructured schedules do not seem to make the key difference in student achievement, then I need to ask: What problem are reformers trying to solve by adding more school time?

The short answer is that for the past quarter century -- A Nation at Risk (1983) is a suitable marker -- policy elites have redefined a national economic problem into an educational problem. Since the late 1970s, influential civic, business, and media leaders have sold Americans the story that lousy schools are the reason why inflation surged, unemployment remained high, incomes seldom rose, and cheaper and better foreign products flooded U.S. stores. Public schools have failed to produce a strong, post-industrial labor force, thus leading to a weaker, less competitive U.S. economy. U.S. policy elites have used lagging scores on international tests as telling evidence that schools graduate less knowledgeable, less skilled high school graduates -- especially those from minority and poor schools who will be heavily represented in the mid-21st century workforce -- than competitor nations with lower-paid workforces who produce high-quality products.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates made the same point about U.S. high schools.

In district after district across the country, wealthy white kids are taught Algebra II, while low-income minority kids are taught how to balance a checkbook. This is an economic disaster. In the international competition to have the best supply of workers who can communicate clearly, analyze information, and solve complex problems, the United States is falling behind. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world.15

And here, in a nutshell, is the second reason why those highly touted reforms aimed at lengthening the school year and instructional day have disappointed policy makers. By blaming schools, contemporary civic and business elites have reduced the multiple goals Americans expect of their public schools to a single one: prepare youths to work in a globally competitive economy. This has been a mistake because Americans historically have expected more from their public schools. Let me explore the geography of this error.

For nearly three decades, influential groups have called for higher academic standards, accountability for student outcomes, more homework, more testing, and, of course, more time in school. Many of their recommendations have been adopted. By 2008, U.S. schools had a federally driven system of state-designed standards anchored in increased testing, results-driven accountability, and demands for students to spend more time in school. After all, reformers reasoned, the students of foreign competitors were attending school more days in the year and longer hours each day, even on weekends, and their test scores ranked them higher than the U.S.

Even though this simplistic causal reasoning has been questioned many times by researchers who examined education and work performance in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Germany, and other nations, "common sense" observations by powerful elites swept away such questions. So the U.S.'s declining global economic competitiveness had been spun into a time-in-school problem.

But convincing evidence drawn from research that more time in school would lead to a stronger economy, less inequalities in family income, and that elusive edge in global competitiveness -- much less a higher rank in international tests -- remains missing in action.

The Obama Department of Education is a prime example of a road to hell paved with good intentions.

What some studies have shown is that poor, urban minority students who don't have access to summer learning activities that follow through on the inertia of school learning during the existing school year fall behind academically. And anecdotal evidence would suggest that the intensity of being poor in unsafe, anti-intellectual situations is more compelling a life experience than, say, reading a book.

To misinterpret this finding with a multi-million dollar initiative to increase already stressed education resources and budgets is madness.

Obama's propensity to accept without question the No Child Left Behind legislation, the reactionary bromides of urban pseudo-educators who insist on draconian more-harder-higher-louder solutions, and the continued intellectually-suicidal dependency on high-stress, high stakes testing is a political sin and an embarassment to Democrats who expected "change".

Obama has lost my confidence in education policy.


John Jensen said...

GIven your ongoing probing about what does and doesn't make for quality education, I'd like to suggest a direction for exploration:
I feel strongly that a whole layer of causality is broadly ignored--which I'm guessing is because people are not accustomed to thinking about causality on the psychological level. Just as it's taken several wars for people to think deeply about PTSD, it may take long-failing education to get people to look INSIDE students.
With the many possible angles to take, it's easy to assume that we already know everything we need to know. Could any "new idea" possibly make a difference? As a psychologist who's worked at how classrooms affect children since 1971, I see some key ideas broadly ignored (that could account for many lagging indicators): how students are motivated, how subjective vs objective scoring affects them, the centrality of emotion and perception, the systematic nature of long-term knowledge retention, students' influence over each other, the destructive power of broad purposes that are off-center, and so on. Instead of focusing on such subtle issues that actually determine students' success, attention goes constantly to issues that resist change.
A factor that can move rapidly, for instance, is that students change almost instantly as they move from the room of one (poor) teacher to that of another (good) teacher. As conditions align accurately with their needs, they "turn on." This implies that school change need not take longer than a few days if we understand the conditions rightly. Think how fast a school could move if all the students were on the same page, saying "Yeah! We're going to approach it this way instead." This is indeed possible if people understand the problem differently.
For some thoughts about causative factors ignored, the URL below is the main page for blogs on education.. A half dozen of mine are still noted there offering some angles I think national education needs to hear. Should you want more explanation, there's much more I can send or can answer questions. I can supply you an e-book copy of my book "The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success," (Xlibris, 2008). Contact me at If you want to talk, I'm at 480-588-6200. The bottom line is that any school can turn around in a couple months if it teaches differently. if you're not familiar with how this can be done, I'd appreciate the opportunity to explain it.
Best, John Jensen, Ph.D..

The Caretaker said...

I generally reject comments that are commercials for one product or another.

Yours at least read and added some worthwhile discussion points.

While I do think there are bad teachers I think the group is very small. On the other hand, many teachers are only good or bad for a small percentage of their students. In my own life, there are teachers who I admired and some who were very supportive of me but that relationship doesn't exist for every student or parent.

There is no "silver-bullet" for the chemistry between teachers and students.

Thanks for your contribution, though.

- Frank Krasicki