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A global reality check on American public education

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Sep. 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
August 31, 2012 5:35 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Statewide third-grade reading: down 4.1 percent.

Statewide fifth-grade science: up 10.4 percent.

Statewide 10th-grade writing: down 1.1 percent.

These are among the multiplicity of student test numbers released Wednesday by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Don’t be overly impressed.

The scores are important. Tacomans need to know, for example, that their third-graders slipped in reading between 2011 and 2012 while their eighth-graders held their own. Sumner parents should know that their district’s third-graders improved by 6 points in math while fourth-graders fell by 9.

One year’s third-graders are the next year’s fourth-graders, and the tests change by grade level, so the scores can’t always tell you much in a given year. But over time, they can provide a sense of which direction a district or school is headed.

What’s missing, though, is the most important context. Not just how kids, or schools, or the state are doing from year to year, compared to themselves, but how public education in Washington and the nation as a whole is doing compared to the rest of the world.

The K-12 system excels at patting itself on the back and promising big things just around the corner. Sometimes, in some school districts, it even delivers. But an important new book, “Trapped in Mediocrity,” splashes ice water on claims that American public education is on the right track.

The author is Katie Baird, a University of Washington Tacoma economist who writes for The News Tribune’s opinion section. Her book – drawing on many international studies – is brutal in its comparisons of American schools to their counterparts in other advanced countries, such as Japan, Finland, England and Singapore.

Some of the findings she cites:

n According to one study done for Congress, French, German and Japanese students receive more than twice as much academic instruction as Americans.

• Compared to their international peers, U.S. fourth-graders do well in math. But American 15-year-olds do much worse. That cautions against taking statewide test scores for a given grade at face value.

• As a rule, students in America’s rival nations spend more time in school and more time getting actual academic instruction in school. They learn more math and science, and they learn it at earlier ages.

• American students are taking more impressive-sounding math classes than in the past, but objective measures show they aren’t learning much more math. An “illusion of rigor” has crept into our schools.

State test scores can be deceiving.

They do a good job measuring how schools stack up against their own past performances. What they don’t measure is how America’s bureaucracy-bound, conflicting agenda-ridden, structurally chaotic approach to public education stacks up against the international competition.

Citing them as proof of quality is like claiming that “personal best” wins medals at the Olympics. The ultimate test is how we fare against the likes of Germany, Taiwan or Finland.

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