Endless excuses for underperforming schools

The News TribuneDecember 16, 2013 

Opponents of education reform in this country increasingly sound as if they come from some Wonderland where average is excellent, tests measure nothing and American students will spend their careers in cocoons protected from international competition.

The same mantras get repeated nearly every time credible international rankings show students elsewhere pulling ahead of their American counterparts.

The latest survey from the Program for International Student Assessment – which measures the performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries – has met with the same response.

The PISA report, based on 2012 scores, ranks American kids about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Some countries – including Japan, South Korea, and Germany – are doing astoundingly better.

What’s worse, the survey suggests our 15-year-olds are sinking in comparison with these countries and many others. Asian nations in particular are watching the United States recede in the rear-view mirror.

Here’s a survey of reactions from the anti-reform crowd, most of them apologists for the status quo:

 • Yes, some of these kids take tests better than our kids, but that just means they’re better test-takers. So what?

 • We’re doing just fine compared to ourselves.

 • Sure we’re average. But we’ve always been average, so that’s OK.

 • Maybe there’s a problem, but it’s all about poverty. Let’s change the subject. (As it happens, some of the high-performing foreign kids are much poorer than their U.S. peers.)

 • Americans already have enough education.

 • All we need is more money.

 • Other nations surpassing us? Big deal. Look at Silicon Valley; we’ve done such wonderful things in the past.

And so on.

No one test is proof of anything, and every test has built-in limitations. But a lot of international surveys – and there have been a lot – show that many nations that once trailed the United States have leapfrogged us.

Meanwhile, much of the old K-12 establishment is still fighting against accountability, objective measurements of performance, rigorous exit exams and other reforms that many of our competitors have adopted and run away with.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan summed up some of the lessons of these international rankings:

“We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators.”

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