The New Complacency About Schools Is Ill-Informed

Why the latest data on student performance doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels

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Just when you thought we’d reached a consensus on the need to dramatically improve America’s schools, a chorus is emerging to suggest all is well. First, a new book out from Harvard University Press, Is American Science In Decline? notes that “American high school students are … performing better in mathematics and science than in the past,” helping explain why the authors’ answer to the title question is “no.” This comes on the heels of a USA Today op-ed last month urging us to “Quit Fretting: U.S. is Fine in Science Education.” And why can the fretting end? Because, the pundits tell us, last year 65% of students had a “basic” grasp of science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), up from 63% in 2009. Their conclusion: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

(MORE: What Do We Do About Poor Science Scores? Take Kids Outside)

It’s hard to overstate how dangerous such complacency is. Not to mention how ill-informed. Popping the champagne corks over slight upticks in NAEP scores, for example, ignores what every serious educator knows: scores of “basic” on that test evidence only limited familiarity with a subject — as opposed to “proficiency,” which was demonstrated by only 35% of our eighth graders in math and 34% in reading.

The broader reality is even more sobering. Only the top quarter of America’s K-to-12 students are performing on par with the average students in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan, and South Korea. International comparisons of advanced achievement in math are even more depressing: 16 countries now produce at least twice as many advanced math students per capita as we do, an important predictor of how many engineers and scientists we’ll have in the future driving economic growth. Last year a Harvard report by Erik A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann placed U.S. math performance 32nd among 65 nations — all this as the U.S. continues to spend more on schools than many wealthy nations do as a share of GDP.

To be sure, there’s been some progress. A new Harvard study by the same authors that is being published today in Education Next looks at the pace of improvement on international tests and confirms the NAEP’s findings of modest gains by U.S. students in 4th and 8th grade, which the complacency crowd no doubt will cheer. (I am on the advisory committee of Harvard’s Program of Education Policy and Governance, which is one of the sponsors of Education Next.) But digging deeper into the data, the new study also shows that the pace of improvement in the U.S. has been no better than the median rate for all 49 industrialized and developing countries during the decade that the researchers analyzed. We’re being lapped by countries we wouldn’t ordinarily think of as playing in our league. The study shows that students in Latvia, Chile, and Brazil are improving at an annual rate nearly three times that of the U.S., and that students in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania are moving ahead at twice the rate of our students. Meanwhile, modest gains among U.S. eighth graders are only about two-thirds that of our fourth graders, implying serious slippage in the middle years of schooling. The bottom line: slight improvements from inadequate starting points while other countries advance faster is no reason for America to celebrate.

(MORE: Do Mothers Hamper Their Daughters in Math?)

That’s why Arne Duncan, looking at the latest NAEP results last November, said, “It’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century.”  Condoleezza Rice and I put it even more bluntly in a recent report by a Council on Foreign Relations task force that we co-chaired. “The United States’ failure to educate its students,” we wrote, “leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy.”

This isn’t us being alarmist.  When the house is on fire, you can’t sound the alarm enough.

What would it sound like if we got serious about school improvement?  For starters, think of an agenda built around three T’s — teachers, time, and technology.

First, we need to recruit and train better teachers across the board, particularly in math and science, and make it a national priority. That will mean abandoning a uniform pay scale and adopting one based on merit. Today top math and science students almost never become teachers because they have more lucrative options elsewhere. If we boosted starting salaries for these specialties to $65,000, and made it possible for great math and science teachers to eventually earn $150,000, research suggests many top students would choose a career in the classroom.

(MORE: In Defense of School Testing)

Second, our kids need to spend more time on task. All the research shows that the amount of time students spend engaged in learning makes all the difference for student achievement, especially for poor children. Yet the U.S. has among the shortest school days and years among leading nations. We can change this.

Finally, we need to do more with technology. We’re on the cusp of an era of extraordinary breakthroughs that make learning more customized and engaging. Already such innovations — from Udacity to the Khan Academy’s web-based tutorials — are reaching millions of students. There’s no reason American innovators can’t lead the world in developing the next generation of education technologies, and deploy them via public-private partnerships that bolster teaching and learning.

The complacency crowd will ask why we should bother with such an ambitious agenda. But take it from someone who fought for eight years to improve our country’s biggest urban school district and knows how much further we still have to go: resting on inadequate laurels is no way to help America’s children prosper in a global age.

MORE: If Our Schools Fail Do the Terrorists Win?

12 comments
Meshack
Meshack

There is one thing all of us overlook in this debate about our students and their math and science scores... One thing all of us can do to put our money where our mouth is... one thing we can all do to demonstrate our support for the students and teachers who have the burden to compete "in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century." And it frustrates the heck out of me that it is never mentioned in these discussions.

Convert to the metric system!!

It's beyond ridiculous that we expect to lead the world in technology but are using a system of weights and measures that is... ancient.

As a gen-x'er who did well in these subjects, I can tell you the job wasn't made any easier with all the conversions that needed to be done to change back and forth from metric units. In fact it made science incredibly tedious and boring. No wonder I opted not to pursue it as a career.

I remember even while I was in school and in college, there was a lot of this finger pointing going on. At us as students, and at teachers for not doing a good enough job.

Now there always seems to be some politician or some pundit wanting place blame and point the finger at someone else for students and teachers not doing a good enough job. Well my grade school teacher told us that when you point the finger, you've got three fingers pointed right back at you.

So when you consider throwing your two cents into this debate, consider what you have done for education lately and whether or not you are willing to make this simple change yourself. It won't solve everything, but I don't see how we can start change without it.

mk045
mk045 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Has anybody considered that we need to just back off a little.  The constant firestorm of "this is failing, that is below average" is not value-added activity.  There is too much blame, attacking unions, attacking administrators, politicians attacking each other over who is right (as if there was a simple right/wrong answer).  People, we just need to back the hell off and let them do their job.

What was the phrase in the article?  "Time on task".  The schools (teachers and administrators) are spending so much time:

* dealing with experts that apparently cannot agree if the sun is bright or dim

* defending against attacks from every quarter

* managing increasing student populations

* dealing with families (including their own) being crushed by the economy

* attempting to educate despite changing (and often bizarre) state standards

* accomplishing this in spite of a decades-long trend of funding and staffing cuts

At what point are they supposed to TEACH?  In an encouraging, productive, growth-oriented environment?  The triumph of American schools is that they somehow survive and manage to largely do their job despite us Americans...

Kimsbenn
Kimsbenn

I live in the economically depressed Appalachian mountain chain. In this area the culture tells you education isn't important because the government will take care of you. In many counties the largest provider of income is some type of government assistance. There are schools with nearly 100% free lunch eligibility. Poverty doesn't make you not care about your children, it makes you hopeless for a better future. Nearly 25% of high school students drop out and about the same percentage graduate from college. They know there is a better life but don't know how to get there. Teacher salary is low due to the tax base being nonexistent. Bus drivers and janitors often make more than teachers because they know this is the best job they can get with no education. The largest private employer is Walmart, a barely minimum wage job. You can hire all new teachers and poor money by the bucket into this area but until adults are responsible for their lives, getting off public assistance and working, it will never get better. Who needs a degree when you know someone else will pay your way from cradle to coffin.

Kris West
Kris West

I love Khan Academy videos. Even if you're not in school, it's always good to learn something new. I'm going through the French Revolution right now and learning so much! I'm a computer technician and I'm not planing on ever taking classes relevant to the French Revolution but it's just fun to listen to the explanations.

BenBushWacked
BenBushWacked

CONE ON PEOPLE!   Who has made the most noise about our education system and the need to get oit it away from the public and have the "PRIVATES DO IT".  Correct, those on the "Right".  Why?  WE ON THE RIGHY LIKE EAN ASY MONEY GRAB AS MUCH AS THOSE ON THE LEFT.  BUT THE RIGHT ALWAYS FIGURE AWAY TO GET THE MONEY FIRST.  THE WANT THE INNER AND OUTER CITY EDUCATUION DOLLARS IN THEIR POCKETS.     THUS THOSE I KNOW WHO ARE GETTING RICH-QUICK CREATED THE "CHARTER-SCHOOL SYSTEMS.  THEY PAY A  MINIMUM ON  NON-UNION SALRIES,  MOM AND DADS HAVE  BAKE  SALES,   HECK, ONE GROUP EVEN SOLD/AUCTIONED OFF A BAKERY(!),  CAR DEALING GIVING CARS TO RAFFLE FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS BUDGETS, ETC.  EVERY BODY IS FEELIN PRETTY GOOD!    ESPECIALLY HE OWNERS OF THE STATES CHARTER/PRIVATES SCHOOLS AS EVERY DOLLAR FOUND BY PARENTS AND COMMUNITY AND CHURCHES LEAVE THAT EQUAL AMOUNT IN POCKETS OF THE SCHOOL OWNERS AS MORE PROFIT FROM THEM  ON TOP OF OUR TAXES PER STUDENT PER DAY THEY GET THE BALANCE OF..    IT'S A SIMPLE "COST SHIFT" TO THEIR POCKETS - AS THE STATE LOTTERYS ARE A "COST -SHIFT" TO THE TO SATES  GENERAL FUND DOLLARS.   SO WHEN WE HEAR lOTTERY FUNDS GO DIRECTLY TO OUR STATESN EDUCATION SYSTEMS THEY DO.....  THEY PUT A LOTTERY DOLLAR IN AS THEY TAKE ONE OF OUR TAX DOLLARS FOR EDUCATION AND SILDE THEM INTO THE GENERAL FUND.  IF THE LOTTERY DOLLARS WERE ACTUALLY ON TOP OF THOSE HISTORAL FUNDING DOLLARS (PRIOR TO STATE LOTTERIES) - OUR SCHOOLS WOULD HAVE GOLDEN SIDEWALKS, ETC......  OR  HEY-  OUR PROPERTY TAXES WOULD BE A WHOLE LOT LESS .  iNSTEAD OF JUST HEARING WHAT THEY SAY ....  WE TRULY DO NEED TO LISTEN.    IT REALLY IS AMAZING HOW DUMB SOME OF THEM BELIEVE WE ARE,,,,,

vrcplou
vrcplou like.author.displayName 1 Like

 And private/charter schools will always do better than public schools because they get to pick and choose their student body.  Can't get your kid to school on time?  Out.  Don't make sure your kid does his homework?  Out.  Kid a chronic discipline problem?  Out.   Public schools have to take whoever and whatever shows up at the door and try to make the best of it.  Regardless of what's going on at home.

kennse
kennse

We as a society are willing to burden future generations with shrinking natural resources and the debt of our poor decisions, but are unwilling to give them the education they will need to think their way out of the problems we've created for them?  Shouldn't we want our youth to be smarter than we are, and not make the same mistakes? If we educate with such vigor and empathy as to admit we want our children to be greater than we who have come before them maybe, just maybe, they will make the conscious decision to strive to reach heights and depths in the fields of math, science that are far beyond their parents wildest (limited) dreams. 

Tomas Franklin Hougerhand
Tomas Franklin Hougerhand

Yes...they are just fine... best part is...my kids are good at science, I'm a chemist...the fewer of your kids that get an education...the better it is for my kids future employment....shhhh go back to sleep....keep your kids out of competition....(oh yeah the world is 6000 years old, and global warming doesn't exist)

Kimsbenn
Kimsbenn

While I believe less competition is better for job placement your dig at either Republucans or religious people is petty. No one ever appears intelligent who belittles others.

failureofreality
failureofreality

Our public schools have been lying to our children.  The lies started with Special Education.  By law, students identified as learning disabled are to be put into regular classes.  They are required to receive help to be able to function in regular

classes.  But no one knows how to do this.  So the schools give good grades, creating the appearance of successfully teaching the students with learning

disabilities.  Teachers have stopped trying to teach.  Instead they give good

grades.

Our teachers are the lowest performing college graduates.  They receive the weakest course of study.  They do not know what rigorous academic standards entail.  But they receive good grades in college and graduate school.  Everyone gets an A in an education class.  So they believe they are highly qualified.

We expect improvement to come from the people currently teaching our children, but instead get false measurements and fraudulent results.  Although it will be extremely difficult, it is necessary to replace our public school teachers and

administrators.

We need to make education the hardest major in our colleges in universities.  We need to make admission to schools of education as hard as admission to schools of

engineering.

Get rid of special education teachers.  They are costly and ineffective.  Get more rigorously trained subject teachers.  Create incentives for smart people to become teachers.  Then give them rigorous classes that build on their knowledge and skill.

DB80
DB80 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I am a certified teacher who is not to be labeled  as one of "the lowest performing college graduates".  I went to college from an academically elite private high school.  I have sinced received two masters degree - one in education and one in business, both with GPA's close to 3.9.  I chose to teach in the inner city, to work with failing students, and  I am always blamed for students' failure by people like you.  It is so easy to blame teachers and call them names, but it just shows ignorance and prejudice.  People love to pass judgement on things they know very little about, and that is exactly what you are doing here - how much time have you spent in a public school? - or are you just using a preconceived idea of what you "think" teachers are like?  I went to a rigorous college, received two graduate degrees, and am enrolled in a doctoral program.  What have you done to better education?

vrcplou
vrcplou

 Then be prepared to pay teachers accordingly.

 Many of the problems in public education stem from too many children coming from homes where there is dysfunction, poor parenting and little or no structure.  These children are not prepared for the demands placed on them by schools.  We have kids who come to school not fully dressed because their parents can't be responsible enough to get them up in time for breakfast - they often come to school hungry as well.  They come to school tired because no one makes them go to bed at a reasonable hour.  They come to school wild and undisciplined because they've never heard the word "no" or never met a situation they couldn't manipulate to get their own way. 

Special ed students often have the worst of it.  I worked with children who were 2-3 grade levels behind in reading and had every intervention the district could offer; our program was a "last ditch" effort to get these kids reading  on grade level.  I spent five years in this program and what I saw was 80% of our students lived as described above.  Our only homework was that the parents read with the child for 5-10 minutes each night and initial a folder saying they had done so.  80% of our parents couldn't even be bothered to do that.  And the bottom line:  the children that made progress and got at or near grade level in reading were the children that had parents who read with them every night; got them in bed at a decent hour, got them dressed and ready for school in a normal manner (not running out the door half dressed, yelling, etc.).  And btw, I live and work in a "good" school district.  Schools will continue to decline until someone has the balls to step up and let parents know they have to be adults and actually/actively parent their children.  A parent's responsibility for their child's education doesn't stop when they drop the kid off on the first day of kindergarten.