Feeling Too Good About Our Schools

By 01/18/2011

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Each time international tests of student achievement are released, there is a parade of glib commentators explaining why we should not pay much attention to the generally poor performance of U.S. students.  The arguments have become fairly standard.  Don’t worry, these tests really do not indicate anything that is very important.  Moreover, if one reads the results carefully, it is possible to find areas where the U.S. looks pretty good.  And if we just look at our best students, they are competitive with students from other countries.  The recent article by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post actually collects each of these arguments into one concise statement.  Not surprisingly, many people are willing to don the blinders offered by such discussions, because they offer a much easier path for public policy.

Unfortunately, each of these common arguments is either terribly misleading or wrong.  Simply looking for blue sky in the test results ignores a substantial body of scientific research.  While many people want to be reassured that things are going just fine, ignoring the real message of these tests actually imperils our economic future.

Let’s start at the top.  The recently released PISA results that compare 15-year-olds around the world in reading, math, and science place U.S. students above the developed-country average in reading, at the average in science, and below average in math.  If one focuses just on reading, perhaps we are not doing so badly, even though we still trail 17 countries.  But reading is very difficult to assess accurately in the international tests.  And reading scores have proven less important than math and science for both individual and national success.  In math, we place 31st in the world rankings.

Research has shown that international performance on these tests is very closely related to the economic growth of nations.  Does the difference between 550 points (roughly Finland) and 500 points (roughly the U.S.) make a difference?  By the historical record of growth, such a difference is consistent with one percent per year in the growth of per capita income.  If we project this out over the lifetimes of children born today, the present value of economic gains from the U.S. reaching the level of Finland would be $100 trillion!  These potential economic gains from improved schools should be compared to the huge political fights in the U.S. over a stimulus package of one trillion dollars, or one hundredth of the magnitude of the gains we are leaving on the table from ignoring the achievement in our schools.

The challenge to the U.S. is clearest when one looks at the proportion of students achieving at the advanced level in math.  Presumably our scientists, engineers, and innovators are drawn from these high performers.  Paul Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, and I assessed not only how well our best states were doing but also how well our white students and our children of college educated parents were doing in advanced skills.

The performance of U.S. students of the Class of 2009 as a whole trails 29 countries.  Sixteen countries actually produce twice the proportion of advanced math students that we do.  And there are more highly talented math students in the whole population of 18 countries than in U.S. families with a college educated parent.

Yes, the U.S. has had advantages that have covered up the poor performance of our schools.  The free and open labor and product markets of the U.S. along with the generally limited intrusion of the government and respect for individual property rights have promoted an innovative society and have attracted the brightest from abroad.  But our relative advantages in these areas are swiftly eroding as other countries emulate our economic institutions and as other countries attract their bright and well-trained students back to work at home.

The feel-good message offers solace to those who counsel maintaining the current course.  It is, however, a bad message that truly threatens our economic future.   To be sure, it will not show up very clearly for some time, maybe even a decade or two.  By then, recovery will at least be much more difficult, if not impossible.

– Eric A. Hanushek

Comment on this article
  • Rick martinez says:

    Dear Eric:

    Just like “a poor man shames us all,” a poor student shames us all! We need no longer hear about how our students fare against other students, or even amid our own standards here in America. The fact is, if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.

    However, instead of battering our educators for more and better, it’s time we invest as much care and “maintenance” into our teachers as we do into our copying machines.

    And, instead of filling our teachers with more “continuing education” on how and what to teach, perhaps it’s time we use the age-old dictum of education to explore and solve the classroom crisis: The purpose of an education is to replace an empty mind with an “open one.”

    Our teachers need our help, our care and concern. They need personal and professional “fulfillment” intervention.
    They need to know about themselves, and how much they
    are needed and wanted. They need us to pull out from them all they feel and experience in the classroom so we can address “their reality”–to empty them of their concerns and open them to not only accomplishment but fulfillment.

    If research claims Friday is the happiest day of the week, and thus TGIF–then we must make everyday be FRIDAY!
    No, not a Monday morning meeting as usual, rather a meeting full of introspection of what teachers did over the weekend and what made them happy, what gave them peace, and what brought them joy. So, instead of Monday morning BLUES, it’s Monday morning DO’s!

    Teachers (and students alike) rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing. How about a new name for homework, something like Progressive Assignments? We describe it this way to create a vision like an executive who comes home with briefcase in hand with a project to do.

    We also know relationships with our teachers are vital and essential not only for accomplishment, but for fulfillment.
    Relationship is more powerful than method. Relationship is more powerful than delivery. Relationship is more powerful than quality. Relationship is more powerful than lesson. And, the more students know, the more they relate;
    The more students trust, the more they relate; The more students relate, the more they learn!

    Teacher “fulfillment” must be the focus of our education
    solution. Heck, we’ve continued to talk about, write about,
    and discuss everything else, and nothing else has worked.

    It’s time to educate ourselves on teacher “fulfillment.” Thank you. Rick Martinez

  • […] our generally poor performance. Is education important to our country’s economy? Absolutely, Hanushek explains: “Research has shown that international performance on these tests is very closely related to […]

  • Brent Duckor, Ph.D. says:

    I have no particular problem with Mr. Hanushek’s method of human capital analysis. As statistical approaches go, it appears sound.

    The problem begins with his theory of educational measurement which is to say with what he calls student outcomes (test scores). The good news is that psychometricians at ETS and other companies have annointed over the test scores he uses, and have purported to validate them.

    Those validation procedures, to my knowledge, do not include a license to use student test score results to measure e.g. the “value added” of any given teacher’s effectiveness.

    In fact, any measurement expert could tell you that “teacher effectiveness” is a psychological construct that itself requires a body of validity evidence to support inferences.

    To my knowledge, Mr. Hanushek does not actually deal with psychomteric models that are governed by the notion of validity and reliability evidence per se. Instead, he takes test scores (data) as they are.

    Hence a second problem with his method. There scores were never intended for the use he puts them to. Put plainly, student test scores are not measures of teacher effectiveness–they have never been intended for this particular use.

    I am not sure where the technical report is that states that the use of student test scores is an appropriate, fair, or valid (APA, AERA, NCME, 1991 Standards) use for measuring teacher effectiveness scores. In fact, there are no direct psychometrically sound measures of teacher effectiveness itself. We don’t know what’s inside the black box.

    As a statisician who prefers regression techniques on extant data, it is not surprising that Mr. Hanushek takes what he has available to run the model and report the findings.

    Sadly, what’s inside the black box (direct measures of teacher effectivenss) are missing from the conversation. Economists pride themselves on proxies and work arounds when faced with data. In my estimation, psychometricians prefer to understand the structure and meaning of the variables they study i.e. the stuff of the “data” itself.

    Too bad, the public finds it easier to consume the bang for the buck that to understand what the bang is.

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