by Molly Capriotti
The field of our youth’s education is plagued with the locusts of doubt with constant cries of falling skies and failing systems. Being the number one nation in the world has stricken us with the ever looming fear of being overcome by the shadow of mediocrity. The system itself is a bit dated, bogged down in bureaucracy and in need of reform but, the schools are not failing, and the nation is not slipping into insignificance.
The past decade has been subject to a calculation, turning our students into numbers and pegging them against other faceless figures around the world. The study TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) conducted by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) claims to be “the largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous international study of schools and students ever conducted.” The study was performed on students in the fourth and eighth-grade and the final year of secondary school from 41 different countries. In mathematics, it claimed that fourth-graders were above the international average but outranked by seven other nations. Eighth-graders in the same subject scored below the international average and twelfth-graders were found among the lowest of the 21 participating nations. Science scores found fourth and eighth-graders above average but twelfth graders below. Considering the estimated 196 nations worldwide, being in the top 20 may not be ‘exceptional’ but is nothing that will make the sky fall.
The concern is reasonable, but overstated. We should always strive for improvement especially when considering our future. However, there are certain factors to appreciate when looking at America’s education system compared to any other nation. We are an exceptional nation, after all.
First, secondary education ends in the United States at the twelfth grade with an average age of 18.1 years. As addressed by http://azschoolsmakeadifference.org, Grade 14 students were in the tested populations of Austria (19.1), Canada (18.6), and Iceland (21.2), while France (18.8), Germany (19.5), Switzerland (19.8), Italy (18.7), and the Czech Republic (17.8), included grade 13 students. In South Africa they only tested twelfth grade students, but their average age was 20.1 (South Africa, along with Denmark, Germany and Slovenia, also did not follow the student sampling guidelines).
Two years can make a very large difference in education. Often times, young adults can go through drastic changes in less than the course of one half year.
Second, Denmark excluded students who completed their formal schooling after grade 9, presumably low scoring students not expected to go to high school. In Denmark the percentage of 25-34 year-olds who have completed “secondary education” is 69%, in the Netherlands it is 70%, in New Zealand 64%, in Australia 57%, in Italy 49%, while in the U.S. it is 87%. Russia and Cyprus excluded vocational students, the Netherlands excluded apprenticeship students. The United States has been pressing the importance of education with legislature like the “No Child Left Behind” laws under Bush and Obama in his state of the union boldly claiming “To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American.” So comparing our high school students to their “secondary” students is comparing apples to oranges.
Third, an MIT sponsored conference on brain research and education pointed out that despite countries like China and Singapore outperforming the U.S. on mathematics tests, they can’t compete with our top technical universities from which big tech companies are recruiting. China has actually been spending the last few years examining the structure of American classrooms and trying to restructure its approach to create more divergent (creative) thinkers rather than convergent thinkers who can narrow choices down on a multiples choice test. Basically, what good are the score comparisons if our citizens are still the ones in demand for the jobs?
Finally, we purposefully sought to provide a free education to every child in America. The initial push for our free public school system for all children started in response to child labor. It was also designed to prepare those children to grow up with basic reading and writing skills to work in factories during the industrial revolution. It was never designed to be “in-depth,” though it has improved over the last 30 years or so with the standards movement. The greater issue isn’t necessarily having inadequate schooling, but trying to overly homogenize education by using identical curricula or methods for every school when the geographical and ethnic scope of education today is so large.
Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested that the “No Child Left Behind” law be revised and made more flexible, as reported by the New York Times. The change of heart resulted in response to an overwhelming amount of requests of states to be waived from the legislature’s strict requirements in proficiency in reading and math. The mandates in NCLB were completely unrealistic and too broad. Special education students were factored into performance scores, it did not take into account developmental timetables of some students and states were fudging test scores making them ultimately meaningless. Schools were facing major penalties like school closings, which would seriously disrupt communities. NCLB had great intentions, but was underfunded and had serious flaws.
If the United States wants to increase its global competitiveness, the current system needs reform at the philosophical level. We need to decide how to educate everyone effectively without stifling creativity. We should be able to create a school system that is diverse in its approaches, have high expectations, and be inclusive. The battle over education is increasingly gaining steam in the capital and will become a major issue if it is not considered so already. The future of American education will certainly be an odyssey of epic proportions. Should the powerful teachers’ unions continue to have a monopoly, or should competition be increased through charter schools and voucher systems? Educational Improvement is important and worth everyone’s time for many reasons, but we should not allow inappropriate international comparisons to create a sense of gloom.
Molly Capriotti is an Assistant Research Analyst at the Caesar Rodney Institute.