Among the sticks used to beat teachers in this country is the perception that U.S. students are less educated than their international peers. Those who make this claim usually cite the findings of large international assessments, such as the TIMSS or PISA studies, that show the mean score of American students well below those of other industrialized nations. Here’s the problem, though.
From an instructional standpoint, there are no U.S. schools. There are no American students.
“Whaaat?!” I hear you cry. “Of course we have U.S. schools.”
No, we don’t. We have a Department of Education—a fairly recent addition to the Presidential cabinet. With the smallest staff but third largest budget of any cabinet-level department, it is empowered to lead the dialogue about education and disperse funds for various programs and grants.
Now, you might be thinking, “Doesn’t receipt of those funds entail some sort of compliance measure or attainment of some standard?”
And the answer is, “Mmm...meh.”
Let’s take a recent and well-publicized example, the Race tothe Top program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Among the stipulations attached to the receipt of these funds were the adoption of common standards and the use of high quality common assessments.
Had these stipulations been enacted, we might be on the road to having U.S. schools. Instead, they became plot devices in a political drama that pit the liberal/tyrannical Obama administration against states with conservative/freedom-loving legislatures. Those states voted essentially to renege on the terms of the deal.
Most of the decisions about the enactment of teaching and learning are made at the state or district level. That is why, in some states, science teachers must present the argument for intelligent design along with evolution or why other states use textbooks that refer to African slaves as imported workers.
The difference between the states becomes unmistakable when their international achievement scores are disaggregated and each state’s results are presented separately.
The graphic seen here is taken from U.S States in a GlobalContext: Results from the 2011 NAEP-TIMMS Linking Study. It reveals that in eighth grade mathematics, Massachusetts students, on average, are outscored only by students from South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Also noteworthy is the success of many states in comparison to Finland. Until this three-ring circus that constitutes our Presidential election eclipsed everything else, I couldn’t pull up my Facebook feed without reading about the idyll that is is Finnish education. According to the NAEP-TIMSS data, though, more than half of the states in this country, including several of the most populous, outscore Finnish students in math at the eighth grade level.
Now, I know that test scores do not provide a complete picture of a school system. However, test scores are the preferred metric of those who criticize “American” schools. By and large, these are the same people who shriek, “Government overreach!!” in response to any effort to ensure that students in one state receive the same quality of education as students in another.
This year will mark my 21st as an educator, and I am officially tired of defending my profession. Alexis de Toqueville asserted that, in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. Perhaps in a confederation of quasi-independent states, they get the education systems they deserve as well.