International House of Dan: What's wrong with our schools?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

What's wrong with our schools?

Like any good liberal, I watched The West Wing tonight. I was relieved to see President Bartlett walking around without crutches as he spoke to Josh, and then I decided to write about education tonight instead of working on my King William's College quiz (,3604,1379479,00.html ... I like to do a few questions a night).

We read that the state of our nation's schools is deplorable (I tend to agree), and it is unfortunate that more of the Presidential campaigns focused on Iraq and terrorism than on education. It should be a sign right off the bat that we choose to worry about terrorism more than education. I don't know what the statistical probability of being a victim of terrorism is, but I'd bet a hefty sum that it's significantly lower than the chance of being directly affected by problems caused by our failing educational system (such as petty crime, or reality TV).

I began by seeking out comparisons with other nations to try to identify things that better performing countries might be doing differently from us. This article from the American School Board Journal ( is from 1996, so the numbers are old but it does present some of the pros and cons of making such comparisons. Let's assume for the sake of this post that it's okay to compare our scores to those of others.

The 2003 PISA figures suggest that Finland knows a thing or two about teaching its young.( I also found an OECD summary of a German government study looking at a small set of countries and examining how their PISA scores reflect their educational systems. It does not seek causal relations between one and the other, but rather looks to identify "universal" factors leading to quality learning, as well as factors that are more country-specific. ( Chapters 9 and 11 are especially relevant, eleven because it's the conclusions, and nine because it reports the way the target countries address socio-economic inequalities that lead to underachievement. The conclusion notes that:
In essence, the comparison brings into focus a model of a flexible school system that offers schools a high level of individual responsibility while simultaneously ensuring their accountability and maintenance of standards, through a system of output-oriented external assessments and targeted and intensive intervention where problems are greatest.
This sounds a lot like the No Child Left Behind plan (, except that upon identifying failing schools, they conduct "targeted and intensive intervention" instead of budget cuts. I highlight targeted and intensive because the blanket approach of calling for more money and more teachers, though supported by liberals, is probably not the answer in and of itself. The NEA's "Testing Plus" proposals for the reform of the NCLB are consistent with this more intensive approach. ( I'll come back to implementation in a minute.

Next, I looked at a 2002 report ( from the National Center for Education Statistics comparing U.S. schools to those of other G-8 countries (France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the Russian Federation, the U.K. and Canada). It was surprising to see how close all the figures were. Nothing stuck out as a major factor, but some trends did come to light. At the primary level, the U.S. outperforms others in student-teacher ratio (trailing only Italy) and in math and science performance, but at the secondary level, these figures change and we slip into mediocrity. We end up with the second lowest percentage of students completing secondary education, which is bad. But again, I was baffled to confirm what I'd been noticing from various sources, that there is little difference in indicators such as student to teacher ratio or expenditures per student, between the U.S. and many higher scoring countries. We actually tend to compare quite favorably in those categories.

A uniquely American feature that is often alluded to,but sparsely documented, is the prevalence of multiple choice tests. I'm not going to get derailed writing about whether standardized tests are biased, or if we waste too much time preparing kids for them. I'm just talking about the format itself, a quiz in 5th grade that only involves circling answers on a page. I couldn't find too many sources on this, but I'm fairly sure that we're the only country that uses these things so much. I can't say that the use of multiple choice tests is to blame for the state of our schools, but I know from personal experience that students will stop studying early and feel it's okay, because tomorrow's test is "just multiple guess".

There is a lot to consider and digest here, but it does tie together in the end. We fear a centralized educational system, and as the NCES data above shows we basically have the most localized schools in the G-8. This localization has serious effects when you consider that the funding consequences in the NCLB Act serve to compound the existing disparities between wealthy (high performing) and poor (low performing) districts. This gives rise to one of the many problems with school vouchers: they can drain high performing students from needy districts, further lowering scores and thus reducing funds at schools that can't afford either. By abandoning vouchers we can focus resources on fixing schools for all children, instead of simply giving up on those who most need help. If a mother can only afford enough food for one of her three children, how does she tell the other two that they must starve because she's chosen to feed the third? This is exactly the sort of decision being made by politicians who support school vouchers, education is that important. By centralizing school administration (as does most of the world), we can institute national curricula that will lower costs (ie. book printers just design one edition for all markets) and make standardized testing easier. Educators can then focus on their particular district's needs, but based on the standard curriculum. This holds nobody back, if the curriculum calls for geometry, and your students can do calculus, well... then they've already learned geometry! Additionally, with a centralized curriculum we can move away from multiple choice tests, because teachers can design more individualized short-answer and essay exams to cover the curriculum in the way best suited for their students.

Grading all these tests and all this individualized attention will of course require more money, and more teachers (sorry... I am a liberal). Might I just suggest we make education a priority at least comparable to defense? We should have a reserve-style program in place, where we pay for a teacher's education in exchange for a four year tour in some of America's neediest areas. Many of the applicants will themselves be from rural and inner city districts, and we can certainly use their help.

I'd like to wrap up with another ASBJ article (this one from 1997) which outlines some of the changes that can be made in the U.S. in order to bring our schools up to "World Class" standards. ( I found it very informative, and I think it contains some excellent observations. Conservatives will like the mention of morality class, but let's save discussion of what goes into the national curriculum for another day, except to say that judging from the way people drive around here it's not safe to cut Drivers' Ed...


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