Amanda Ripley has an interesting new piece in The Atlantic on how America fares in international education comparisons. We all know this story: we stink. Of course, we have a tendency to believe it's other people's schools that stink, not our own children's. America is a diverse nation, the story goes. We all know that inner-city schools struggle with issues of entrenched poverty. Other schools serve newly-arrived immigrant children who don't speak English. Wouldn't these schools drag down overall scores?
Perhaps. But she highlights new research from Eric Hanushek (my favorite educational economist) which compares white kids and kids with college educated parents to students overall in other countries. Reports Hanushek? "Even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive."
Hanushek has spent his career debunking different notions of what makes a school work. For decades, we've been focused on inputs: money, class sizes, teachers with advanced degrees. No Child Left Behind has started to measure outputs, but there are many flaws with the system (not least of which is that states use their own tests, some of which seem to measure only if kids can write their names). Ripley cites Massachusetts' reforms, which have produced some good results. Massachusetts tests teachers, tests kids (using tests that produce similar results to the NAEP), and focuses money on tutoring for kids who need help.
But overall, Hanushek's findings are going against a culture of denial which is deeply entrenched. For all the fretting about schools, in certain communities (and often in the media), we hear even more about how much pressure students are under these days. The college admissions game has overachieving kids and their parents stressed out... but in most cases, all that stress isn't actually producing results that are internationally competitive. And that's a problem because we are shifting, more and more, to a global economy where your competition is not others in your school or community, but people in other countries. Where, it turns out, kids actually learn math.