Today's New York Times (Many Nations Passing U.S. in Education, Expert Says) reports on the testimony given before the Senate education committee by Andreas Schleicher, who heads the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Directorate for Education within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Schleicher, reportedly one of the world’s foremost education experts, told the committee that students in many OECD countries are outperforming their U.S. counterparts as measured both by high school graduation rates and educational achievement tests; Canadian 15-year-olds, for example, are more than one full school year ahead of American 15-year olds.
In what must count as the understatement of the year given the overwhelming educational advantage once enjoyed by Americans, Mr. Schleicher lamented that “[i]n one way, international education benchmarks make disappointing reading for the U.S.”
This is an old story, and with each new iteration the U.S. sinks ever lower. Although dysfunctional families and even "over-entertained and distracted” students were blamed at the Senate hearings, “bad teaching” is conventionally the sole villain in the Decline and Fall of the Great American School System drama.
Pundits and politicians alike are peddling the notion that, if one great teacher can change a kid’s life (something most of us know to be true), then hiring only great teachers will change the school system (a non sequitur). What I would like to see discussed somewhere, however briefly, is how certain differences between the U.S. and other industrialized countries contribute to the stunningly low educational achievement of U.S. students compared to their peers in those countries.
I am not an education expert, but here's what I know, from personal experience growing up in Italy and Switzerland, from the experiences of relatives and friends, and from traveling extensively and from not limiting my news intake to U.S. media. My observations are pretty much limited to continental Europe (i.e., not the U.K., which in some ways resembles the U.S., notably in fostering private schools as a desirable alternative to public schools).
I would add that, notwithstanding the media's and the public's fascination with the high test scores of Japanese, Korean or Chinese children, the United States should be compared to European rather than Asian countries both because the attitudes towards education are more broadly similar (less emphasis on regimented learning than in Asia) and because they share the experience of substantial numbers of immigrants in public schools.
For starters, most other countries do not dump their social problems onto the public schools. Schools are not expected to take full responsibility for the educational outcomes of children who are ill-fed or hungry and ill-housed or homeless; in poor health; in dysfunctional families or in families of recently- arrived immigrants without adequate language or job skills. It's not that these problems don't exist anywhere else; however, other countries-- including those with far lower per capita GDP-- generally have a better safety net and/or deal with these issues through other government agencies and programs.
Second, few other countries indulge in the fiction that every 18-year-old should get the same degree. When experts discuss “high school” graduation rates or assessments given to “high school students,” most people assume kids in other countries attend some variation on the American high school. In reality, most European countries have differentiated secondary schools, only some of which lead to university. Americans view this as a denial of opportunity, which they believe is coterminous with a college degree, obtainable by anyone at any age.
Few will admit that the American system is hugely inefficient (serving primarily to create tens of thousands of jobs in the educational - industrial complex and a massive educational loan burden), tends to dumb down the high school diploma, and does little to ensure equitable outcomes since ostensibly identical degrees from different schools/colleges represent vastly different educational experiences and have vastly different value in the marketplace.
Third, most countries do not fund their schools through property taxes or other local schemes that lead to gross inequities among schools. And then there is the uniquely American attitude towards taxation--people in the rest of the world don't like to pay taxes either, but they understand that some things, notably schools and basic healthcare, must be paid for. When I tell my family and friends overseas that Americans consider it acceptable to shorten the school year or close half a city’s schools to avoid raising taxes, I am met with stunned silence and utter disbelief.
Fourth, although private schools exist and in some countries are even funded on a par with public schools, most people send their children to the local public school (up to and including university). People have an investment in working public schools because, regardless of socio-economic status, they don't view putting their children into a parallel private school system as a real option (nor would they think of moving to get to a better school since US-style economically segregated suburbs are few and far between).
I'm not suggesting European schools are perfect, or that the U.S. should adopt the European system of differentiated secondary education wholesale. But before blaming schools, teachers and the kids themselves, before focusing on curriculum, standards and assessments, shouldn’t we ask: “what are countries with better educational outcomes doing differently from us?”
Higher standards are a laudable goal, but the single-minded focus on and vast sums spent in pursuit of higher standards over the past few years have resulted in the dumbing down and narrowing of education, school officials and teachers gaming the system in every conceivable way, and no real results when our students are compared to the rest of the world.
We cannot just will our students to do better, nor will changes at the margin -- a charter school here, an innovative program there-- lead to the kind of transformation necessary to keep up with the rest of the world, let alone lead it.