December 3, 2013 by gregrabidoux2013
Since I always try but often fail at seeing the positive in things, let me share the good news first. International test scores on science, math and reading are in for teens (ages 15-19) from 65 nations representing 85% of the world’s economy. A little more than a half a million kids (510,000) sat down recently for 2 hours to show how much (or how little) they knew on core subjects that just about the whole world recognizes as important.
The Good News? US teens did not show much slippage and even some slight improvement overall. Sweet. That deserves a video-game break, right Mom? Hold on, I haven’t shared the bad news yet.
This test administered and quantified by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) of which we are a member, is part of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The test measures basic subject knowledge in math, science, reading and problem-solving and provides some comparison as to what the average global teen knows, should know, and what they could do with such knowledge moving forward. At least, according to the OECD/PISA website.
As Mr. Angel Gurria, the OECD Secretary-General (head boss, El Jefe) makes clear, the test results “go well beyond mere statistical benchmarking high performance educational systems” but allows for many to identify those high-performing school systems and adapt local policies to emulate and replicate their success.
Look at the nations with the highest scores, find out what they are doing that you are not and try to mimic their success by adapting their approach to your system. Easier said than done, right? So, are we the envy and “model” for the rest of the world? Not quite, my mathematically challenged American teen friend. Not quite.
Fact is the USA finished in the lower middle of the pack. In Math, 35 nations scored higher than us. The top scores came from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Korea (sense an Asian pattern yet?) and Switzerland. The USA even trailed those mathematical bully nations like Liechenstein, Canada, Vietnam, Slovenia, Slovakia and Luxembourg. I suppose it’s partially good news that most US kids couldn’t find those nations we scored lower than on a map. Our shame is perhaps mitigated by our own geographical ignorance and stubborn indifference.
The nations with the biggest gains over the last few years in Mathematics were Italy, Portugal, and Poland. Hey, 1/3 of us can find Italy on a map if you spot us the “boot!”
Okay, how about all those little Scientific American teen “brainiacs” watching Bill Nye the Science Guy? Well, there were about 30 nations ahead of us. The top scores hailed from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, (gee, that’s a persistent little pattern, hey?) and Finland.
Italy, Poland, Qatar and Estonia showed the greatest increase in Science scores over the last few years. Well, we did manage to eke out a win over Peru and Tunisia. Yeah, take that losers. USA, we’re number#36 or so.
And how about reading and critical thinking? Well, the good news is our girls continued to show some improvement and increased the lag between American girls and boys. I don’t want to bring up hours spent by our boys on game-boy or X-box versus girls who still seem to actually read but denial is still just a river in France, er, Egypt.
Overall? US kids again were in the middle of the pack. East Asian nations as well as those in the Nordic region again dominated while Israel, Poland and Albania showed the most improvement.
At least we continued to dominate Peru. Of course, since they finished dead last in all categories so did 64 other nations. Facts and figures can make for real party-poopers.
So, what do the PISA scores mean? Well, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan depicted the results as a “picture of educational stagnation” and admonished us all to do more in recruiting top notch students, preparing our kids and making college more affordable.
All well and good Mr. Secretary but these were scores of teen students and we are already far behind a majority of the other nations taking the exams. In other words, making college more affordable is a fine and noble goal but by then, honestly, it is already too late to close the global learning gap.
What will the fallout be as a result of our less than stellar scores? I can almost guarantee the following-there will be some who attack the PISA test, some who dismiss the importance of such measures, some who decry any form of standardized testing and some who will fall back on the “everyone is a winner” philosophy no matter what the scores. There will be a few new age educators who will encourage us to give a trophy to every kid who survived the grueling 2 hours of exam-taking. You know, because stroking one’s self-esteem is paramount regardless of the more cold and sobering results.
Look, I don’t pretend to have all the answers either. But as one who has been teaching kids in higher education now for over 15 years, most of it full time and some of it internationally I have drawn a few anecdotally driven conclusions. The first is that those nations that consistently score ahead of us are imbued within a culture that makes learning and achieving academically not just a nice thing but a necessary thing. No excuses. It might sound a bit harsh but the results don’t lie. Second, it does start early. I don’t mean the kid needs to start reading Shakespeare at age 2 but the love and passion of pursuing knowledge must be recognized, rewarded and heavily reinforced. Wanting to emulate Lebron James is wonderful but truly, how many kids are ever gonna fly like King James, rap like Jay-Z or throw a spiral like Tom Brady? Answer? None.
Third, we’ve allowed feel-good motivations and grade inflation to absolutely cripple our educational system. I see it every day I teach class. Far too many students feel entitled to a good grade because they (well, their parents) paid tuition and they (miraculously) showed up for (most) of their classes. Fourth, somehow constructive feedback to students who clearly cannot write, read or even compute at a basic level is seen as picking on students, or targeting students for abuse. The sad fact is that I have seen student’s writing skills deteriorate over the last decade to such a degree that now if I see a paragraph that is coherent or (gasp) an essay that is constructed clearly I want to pop the cork and celebrate. The fact is by the time I get them it may again be too late to help them dramatically upgrade their skills to be globally competitive.
Look, it’s not all gloom and doom. I also see well-meaning and earnest kids every semester. They want to achieve, learn and do their best. It’s just that I remain convinced that our system is simply failing them early on and as a result they are, if not failing, truly lagging behind the rest of the world. The really bad news? The gap is getting bigger not smaller.
It’s well beyond time for us all to wake up and stop blaming the test-givers for the test results. We are not getting the job done. Secretary-General Gurria is spot on-time to swallow our false pride, see what others are doing and then try and adapt their approach.
Because the thrill of beating Peru and Tunisia will only take us so far. And for so long.