Ted McLaughlin : U.S. Students Losing Education Race

Cartoon from Hermes-Press.

International standardized test results:
U.S. students aren’t making the grade

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / December 7, 2010

The graph below shows how students in many countries did on a standardized test, when the same test was given to a random sample of about 5,100 students in each country — a large enough sample to make the results pretty accurate. The test was administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a respected organization based in France.

Graph from the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


The results for China was from three areas — the city of Shanghai and the administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao. As you can see, the Chinese topped the chart in all three of the tested areas (science, reading, math). Meanwhile, the United States finished well down the list and actually scored below the average score in math. Here’s how the U.S. scored:

Reading – 17th place – score 500 (average score 494)
Science – 23rd place – score 502 (average score 501)
Math – 31st place – score 487 (average score 497)

None of those scores is anything to brag about, especially when compared to the Chinese scores which were much higher (reading 556, science 575, math 600). Several other Asian countries (Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) also scored significantly higher than students in the United States. The fact is that while these countries are pushing education and demanding a lot from their students, the United States is falling behind.

And we can expect China’s performance to spread out into other areas of their country. As Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in Reagan’s Education Department, says, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities by 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

And don’t think the Chinese somehow cheated to get those scores. A Bush administration Education Department employee, Mark Schneider, said, “The technical side of this was well regulated, the sampling was OK, and there was no evidence of cheating.”

The simple truth is that there are many countries that take educating their students more seriously than do the leaders of the United States. There is a recession going on right now and that makes it hard to fund any kind of program, but many schools were not adequately funded in America before the recession. The recession has just made it worse, since now many politicians (like those here in Texas) don’t see education as particularly important and are cutting education funds.

Many states are cutting education funds, and that means there will be fewer teachers, larger class sizes, supply and book shortages, and deteriorating facilities — all at a time when other countries are pushing education as a key to their future. President Obama talks like he understands the importance of America fixing its educational system, but he either doesn’t have the political will or political backing to do much about it.

Add to this the growing power of the far-right and you have a recipe for failure — with the educational system slipping even further behind many other countries. The right-wingers coming into power seem intent on destroying U.S. education. Instead of improving education, they want to cut funds, inject religion into science classes, substitute right-wing propaganda for real history, and avoid the setting of national education standards. Some of the right-wingers even want to abolish the Department of Education.

These right-wingers are great believers in “American exceptionalism” — the belief that America is better than any other nation. But they don’t seem to understand how America became a world leader. It was due to an excellent educational system, which at one time was the envy of the world. But that system is sliding downhill, and the further it slides the harder it will be for America to compete in this modern and changing world.

Many of those on the right think all America needs to stay on top is religion and a strong military. That thinking is not only faulty, but very short-sighted. We have recently seen that we cannot impose our will and system of government on others through military means — that has been brutally proven in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The way a nation stays strong is through excellent education and industrial and economic strength. We are in the process of destroying both. We are currently exporting many of our best-paying jobs and industries to other countries, instituting economic policies that create an ever growing gap between the rich and the other Americans, and playing games with education with cutting its funding. This is not the way to keep America strong.

Boris Yeltsin once said, “You can build a throne of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it long.” That seems to be what we are doing in America. We are continually building up our military, while cutting everything else. In the long-run, that’ll be the downfall of America (although I’m sure many right-wingers will blame that on a lack of religion and a failure to give enough money to the rich).

America can still be fixed, but not by continuing to march to the right-wing’s drumbeat.

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger.]

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to Ted McLaughlin : U.S. Students Losing Education Race

  1. Anonymous says:

    PSA & SAT scores are reasonably reliable indicators of which students will perform adequately in college. They are not, however, reliable predictors of non-academic competence or economic success in life. While it is hardly the only reason for decline in American education, the tremendous emphasis on standardized test performance continues to handicap teachers and leave many a student “behind”.

  2. Anonymous suggests that the reliance on standardized test scores as the primary tool for evaluating educational quality has contributed to the degradation of American educational quality, but does not highlight the irony that the comparison in the article is based on standardized test scores.

    This would suggest a variety of interpretations:
    1. maybe we should not make too much of this analysis, because of its reliance on a single standardized test;
    2. if teaching directed toward standardized test-taking was effective in even accomplishing that single aim, one would think that we would fare better;
    3. perhaps we are just teaching to the wrong test(s).

    Nevertheless, as untrustworthy as this may appear to be, let’s assume for the moment that the results do actually correlate to educational quality, even if it is merely coincident. It would probably be pretty unrealistic to expect the American educational institution to attempt to mirror those countries at the top of the tables. China, Korea, Singapore and Japan have considerably different cultural elements that would make an attempt to mimic them in American schools like to fail miserably. However, looking just a few places down the chart, we can see that Canada seems to fall just behind these countries in each area. The only other Western country that places higher than Canada on all three lists is Finland, which may also have too many cultural differences, or at least political ones, for us to emulate them effectively. But Canada! We should be able to look across our northern border and see what they are doing differently that allows them to achieve better results, and to borrow their methods.

    But we haven’t been able to do that with health care, so why should we be able to do it with education?

    Ah, there I go again with my God-and-capitalism hating, America-bashing ways.

  3. Alan says:

    National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

    Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

    The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

    A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

    This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

    If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our teaching tactics with real life projects.

    Alan Cook

  4. Privatize education. Allow each parent to have a voucher so that they can send their child to a school that best matches their childs learning modality. There are parents who today are uninvolved in their childs education and allow and encourage them to waste their time in the classroom. These parents can use their voucher to send their kids to the same government schools with same union teachers so they can emerge and be the best walmart workers they can.

    Parents who today have their children trapped in government schools taught by union teachers and sharing classrooms with scores of kids who dont care about learning can escape to a better place and a better future.

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