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A country doing ‘average’ in education, is falling behind

Published: Thu, December 30, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

In the super-competitive culture in which most Americans are raised — or at least like to think they are being raised — calling someone average is an insult.

Perhaps no phrase captures the pejorative nature of average better than the line from Garrison Keillor’s radio monologue about Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

No one readily admits to being average.

But it’s becoming harder and harder for American students — as a group — to run away from the label. In fact, when stacked up against students in other industrial nations, U.S. students (and their parents) wish they were average.

Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment released early this month showed average performance by 15-year-old American students in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

And who are our students being schooled by? The list includes South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Associated Press this should be a wake-up call for the United States. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

It’s easy enough to agree with Duncan on the need to be alarmed, but we’re not convinced that “investing in education,” if that’s just another way of saying “spending more money,” is the answer.

Problems of scale

The United States is a huge, diverse nation and that size and diversity make for more anomalies than we can list here. There is a wide disparity in spending on education in the United States, with some eastern states and the District of Columbia spending twice as much per pupil as some southern and western states. But the high-spending districts’ students don’t do twice as well as the low spenders. And sometimes they do worse.

Looking north, a 2009 Canadian study showed that the highest per capita student expenditures in North America could be found in New Jersey, at more than $19,000. That’s more than twice the average in the Canadian province of Ontario. But PISA’s numbers wouldn’t support the contention that New Jersey is investing more wisely than Ontario.

Also, the PISA results don’t show that the United States is getting worse in most cases, it’s that other nations are getting better. And to further complicate matters, when the U.S. results are parsed, they show that students in middle class or wealthy districts do better than the average for other countries, while students in poor U.S. districts do correspondingly worse.

Regardless, all Americans should be concerned at our students being below average when compared as a group to the students from so many other nations. To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, average is as average does.

A nation cannot expect to remain a world leader in science, technology, commerce or prestige when its next generation is doing, at best, average work.

Between 1995 and 2008, the United States slipped from second in college graduation rates to 13th and only eight of the 34 countries in the PISA results have a lower high school graduation rate. A nation whose people stop valuing education is giving up the high ground.


1palbubba(746 comments)posted 4 years, 11 months ago

Our media is most assuredly part of the problem. One has to look no farther than the Vindy that always backs levy increases and only endorses candidates that are against school vouchers or any other alternative approach to educating the children. They endorse only candidates that are bought and paid for by the teachers unions which could care less about educating children.

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2Traveler(606 comments)posted 4 years, 11 months ago

they show that students in middle class or wealthy districts do better than the average for other countries, while students in poor U.S. districts do correspondingly worse.

Our schools aren't falling just the parents on section 8. Our entailment system rewards people for failing to get a education.

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3Education_Voter(1014 comments)posted 4 years, 11 months ago

Well, let's look at these countries. Finland and Singapore are almost opposite in their approaches to educating children; EXCEPT that in both there is little credence given to a need for "diversity" of types of schools offered or of a need for competition between types of schools. (Competition between students is a factor in schools in Singapore, but not between schools.)

In these countries you go to the public schools in your community. Period. Even in Canada, with its strong Catholic school tradition in some provinces has only 6% private schools.

Teachers in Finland, Canada, and South Korea are unionized much more than in the U.S., although teacher unions are suppressed by the government of South Korea.
South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore share the Asian values of family, and their students will go to great lengths to compete. This attitude can be destructive at times. Children in Finland and Canada seem to be achieving without it. Standardized testing is downplayed in Finland, and there is little separation of children by ability.
I guess my biggest question about this test is:
"How much difference is there actually between 2nd place and any other place to 25th place?"
My guess is that all of the middle scores are very close, and that all of them are much higher than scores in developing countries.

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4Ytownboy(142 comments)posted 4 years, 11 months ago

Teaching is a profession that garners very little respect in America. Nor is teaching a well compensated job. We've made teaching an unattractive alternative for intelligent and accomplished people, so it's no wonder few want to teach.

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5atownreader(34 comments)posted 4 years, 10 months ago

After being in classrooms for over 35 years, my observation and opinion is that discipline is most of the problem. Many children lack control of impulses and many just lack a yearning for learning. Character issues are crucial. These are internal, and no matter how much money you throw into the system, it won't make a difference until this is addressed.

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6Eric(198 comments)posted 4 years, 10 months ago

"Our schools aren't falling just the parents on section 8. Our entailment system rewards people for failing to get a education."

Hey Traveler, that would be "failing to get AN education." I guess our ENTAILMENT system didn't do much for you, either.

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7Education_Voter(1014 comments)posted 4 years, 10 months ago

And most internet comment section addicts couldn't make it teaching.

Come to think of it, I have seen plenty of other "crossover" teachers go running from the classroom back to their "area of expertise".

In addition to areas of expertise, teaching requires an ability to communicate that expertise, understanding of child development, and a fine touch in dealing with parents and the community.

Oh. And listening to jealous folks who couldn't earn a license, sidewalk supervisors, internet experts, etcetera; because education is a public enterprise.

By the way, there are those in politics who would like to change that, and take your voice away, by making education a commercial enterprise. I like to daydream about the future where complainers are sent to a phone bank in India.

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8Education_Voter(1014 comments)posted 4 years, 10 months ago

Honest Abe,
If your last comment is true, we may want to question policies that send the lion's share of available resources into classrooms for the disabled. Even with two adults, nine children, and all the materials in the world, children with cognitive impairment can only make small gains in academic achievement.

I wonder what would happen if those resources were poured into the classrooms of average and academically talented students?

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