No, U.S. Students Are Not ‘Middling’ or ‘Failing’, Unless They’re Poor

I like PZ Myers, even when I don’t agree with him. But in a recent post, he describes the U.S. educational system as “a mess” and links to a post which describes the U.S. education system as “muddling along in the middle” (boldface mine):

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

I’ve dealt with the U.S. PISA results before (we’ll get to the whole Finland thing in a bit), but it bears repeatingU.S. students in non-poor schools excel in comparison to the rest of the world:

Let’s leave aside the methodological problems–and there are a hell of a lot of methodological issues (which hopefully I’ll deal with in a separate post). If we subdivide the U.S. data in a very obvious way, we observe something, well, rather obvious:

But data available now tells us that poverty, as usual, had a huge impact on PISA reading test scores for American students. American students in schools with less than 10% of students on free and reduced lunch averaged 551, higher than the overall average of any OECD country. Those in schools with 10 to 25% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch averaged 527, which was behind only Korea and Finland.

In contrast, American students in schools with 75% of more of children in poverty averaged 446, second to last among the 34 OECD countries.

We might not be living in a nation where one-third of a nation is ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. It’s only one in five, give or take. Improvement, I suppose.

I’ve made this point ad nauseum, but I’ll make it again, since education ‘reformers’, like creationists, are refractory to evidence. Until we get serious about reducing poverty, as well as breaking up large geographic concentrations of poverty, our average test scores will be poor.

Sure, we would always like the educational system to be better. But as long as students aren’t weighed down by poverty, they are doing very well–if it’s a “mess”, it’s a mess that generates good outcomes. Now, let’s talk about Finland (and don’t forget Poland!). Actually, I just discussed Finland, and there are two very interesting things. First, while Finland aces the PISA test on math, it doesn’t do as well (although still very well) in math on the TIMMS test (another international test). Why? Because the two tests measure different things (boldface mine):

A plausible hypothesis stems from differences in the content of the two tests. The content of PISA is a better match with Finland’s curriculum than is the TIMSS content. The objective of TIMSS is to assess what students have learned in school. Thus, the content of the test reflects topics in mathematics that are commonly taught in the world’s school systems. Traditional domains of mathematics–algebra, geometry, operations with numbers–are well represented on TIMSS.

The objective of PISA, in contrast, is not to assess achievement “in relation to the teaching and learning of a body of knowledge.” As noted above, that same objective motivates attaching the term “literacy” to otherwise universally recognized school subjects. Jan de Lange, the head of the mathematics expert group for PISA, explains, “Mathematics curricula have focused on school-based knowledge whereas mathematical literacy involves mathematics as it is used in the real world.” PISA’s Schleicher often draws a distinction between achievement tests (presumably including TIMSS) that “look back at what students were expected to have learned” and PISA, which “looks ahead to how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply their knowledge and skills in novel settings.”

The emphasis on learner-centered, collaborative instruction and a future oriented, relevant curriculum that focuses on creativity and problem solving has made PISA the international test for reformers promoting constructivist learning and 21st-century skills. Finland implemented reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s that embraced the tenets of these movements. Several education researchers from Finland have attributed their nation’s strong showing to the compatibility of recent reforms with the content of PISA.

In other words, Finland does well on the PISA test because PISA reflects Finland’s educational goals (interestingly, many Finnish mathematics university professors think those goals leave Finnish students woeful underprepared for college math, but that’s a whole separate discussion).

Finland seems to have some ideas worth implementing, but if we want to raise test scores across the board, we need to tackle poverty and the reality that many children show up to school with considerable disadvantages. If there is a systemic fault, it is primarily an economic and societal one. We need to correctly identify the problem: it is not a general problem, but one localized to disadvantaged children.

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7 Responses to No, U.S. Students Are Not ‘Middling’ or ‘Failing’, Unless They’re Poor

  1. Janne says:

    But you know, schools, and school districts, are not all equal in other countries either. If you are going to look at only one subset of US schools, you need to look only at the corresponding subset of schools in the other countries in this comparison.

    It’s the same thing when people argue that results vary wildly by US states. Results vary wildly by region, Kanton, Landskap or Chihou elsewhere too, and you can’t honestly subdivide data for one country without doing the same for the others.

    • The categories I described each roughly correspond to one third of the U.S., which would be equal to a country of ~100 million (these low performing regions, the poor ones, are scattered across the U.S. at a very small scale, miles–this is not equivalent to Swiss Cantons, except perhaps in population numbers).

      Most EU countries have far less poverty overall (good for them, bad for the U.S.). And if you check the links, when you compare each of the U.S. ‘countries’ to actual countries that have similar poverty rates, the U.S. is doing well there too, except for the bottom U.S. third. It’s really not a systemic crisis.

  2. Janne says:

    I only talked about regions as another point where people tend to do this faulty reasoning. Has nothing directly to do with the present discussion. Shouldn’t have brought it up.

    If you can leave out the poorest US schools as they’re poorer than any schools in Finland, then you need to leave out the wealthiest, most resourceful schools in the US sicne they’ll be richer than any schools in the country of comparison.

    I do question your assertion that those schools really are so much poorer than the worst schools in Europe; the immigration-dense suburbs of large European cities have schools that are every bit as bad as anything you can find in the world. Also, I question that you can leave out schools due to poverty at all – isn’t one point of such a comparison to capture screaming poverty and lack of any resources?

    • The problem is that the poverty rate in the U.S. is so high. I would be curious to see how poor Finnish schools do (and wealthy ones), but the U.S. has so many more heavily poor schools (and fewer wealthy schools). In other words, most schools in Finland fall into the <10% category (Finland's child poverty rate is ~5.5%, while the U.S. is around ~22%), although if the breakdown of schools existed for Finland, it would be interesting to see.

      I agree with you about poverty, but that's the problem in the U.S.: too many argue the issue is the 'schools' when in fact, it's a largely a reflection of our obscene poverty rate. The question is what needs fixing: the school system, or that so many U.S. children are poor? I don't think it's the educational system (although it could be improved) as much as it is that some kids show up really disadvantaged and unable to learn fully.

  3. Janne says:

    So a fair comparison would be to compare schools with pupils of similar socioeconomic status. Not to simply cut out the worst third of one party and leave the other unchanged.

    But I still maintain that you can’t disentangle poverty and the educational system. I understand that in the US educational system, the money available for schools is determined at least in part by property taxes, which means that poor areas will have much less money to use for education. That is a very direct effect on the education system from the level of poverty, don’t you think?

  4. I agree, poverty makes everything bad. Poor areas have worse school results, they also have worse health outcomes, even in countries with a public health system (see the “Black Report” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Report ). From a former teacher, now nurse.

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