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Mitch Edelman: Educational achievement faltering

People laughed when Winston Churchill chided a political opponent with the retort, "I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent." But the U.S.'s rank on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment is no laughing matter.

More than 65,000 students from 65 countries were tested, according to the results contained in a report released Dec. 3. All 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development participated. Testing covered mathematical reasoning, reading and science knowledge.

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Students from Asian countries outperformed the rest of the world in all categories; American high school students were slightly below average in reading and science tests and were well below average in math, ranking 26th out of 34 member countries in the OECD.

While scores for American students have essentially stayed the same, the rest of the world is improving. In this competitive world, to stand still is to fall behind.

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American students performed at a level equivalent to two full years behind students from Shanghai, the best-performing in the world. American students ranked 17th in reading and 21st in science. While the U.S. spends more per student than most other countries, that spending doesn't translate into better performance. Students from Slovakia perform at the same level as Americans, but at about 46 percent of the cost.

The math portion of PISA has questions at six difficulty levels. At the lowest level, students just need to follow simple, explicit instructions with all relevant information present. The highest level questions require them to model complex processes and reason abstractly. More than one in four American students fail to reach PISA Level 2 in math literacy, equivalent to being able to tell if a car's price is within preset limits. By comparison, less than 8 percent of Chinese students fail to reach this level.

Long-term studies show that students performing at this low level "often face severe disadvantages in their transition into higher education and the labor force in subsequent years." At the other end of the spectrum, just 2 percent of U.S. students attained Level 6 scores, compared with 31 percent of Shanghai's teens.

I do not believe that Chinese kids are just plain smarter than Americans. Something else contributes to our low performance. And that something else has to do with our very diverse culture, the emphasis we put on the value of education, the way we educate our kids and the opportunities they have to learn.

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It also has a lot to do with poverty, one of the most critical determinants of how children perform in school, as well as their level of nutrition and general health. With childhood poverty rates in the U.S. about twice that of Canada and Germany, it is no surprise that students from those countries outperformed us. The plain fact is that schools in poor neighborhoods are academically disadvantaged compared to those in more affluent communities.

If dealing with poverty is too difficult, improving school curricula might be more attainable. The OECD report found that American math programs are fluff, neither providing challenging problems nor opportunities to apply math in real-world situations. Their analysis is "that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains in PISA."

Much has been written about improving teacher performance, but the world's best instructor cannot educate an empty chair. Missing just one school day in two weeks accounts for a significant drop in student performance. Negative student-teacher relationships or expulsions adversely affect across-the-board school performance.

But no matter what changes take place inside schools, the most important changes need to occur in the way we view education. Asians understand that education is essential for an individual's economic advancement. Here, we have gaggles of politicians who oppose reforming curricula just because they dislike the governor or the president, or because they believe in "local control." There is no such thing as local control of math or science. As Cassius might have observed, had he been alive today, "The fault is not (entirely) in our schools, but in ourselves."

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