Opinion
Education Opinion

A Contrarian View of “Race to Nowhere”

By Walt Gardner — May 02, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As a long-time subscriber to The Wall Street Journal, I know before reading its editorials and essays about public schools what to expect. “Do American Students Study Too Hard?” (Apr. 30) by James Freeman, assistant editor of the editorial page, was no exception.

Freeman uses “Race to Nowhere,” which was released in Sept. 2010 by first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, as a springboard to comment on what he says is the wholesale failure of public education. Contrary to the documentary’s argument that students in this country are overwhelmed by stress caused by pressure from their parents to get good grades, participate in a host of extracurricular activities and excel on the SAT, he asserts that students aren’t working as hard as Abeles believes.

Freeman offers as evidence two intuitively appealing facts: almost half of incoming freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley have to take remedial courses, and students score poorly on international tests. As he puts it: “If they work so hard, how do they learn so little?” It’s a question that I hear frequently from those I meet at social affairs. But it’s a little like asking a husband when he stopped beating his wife because both questions carry with them a presumption of guilt.

Let’s take the second question first since it is seen as the greater threat to the future of this country. Freeman frames the issue this way: “But of course American kids were performing poorly on international tests long before Mr. Bush was inaugurated.” Freeman looks to Jeanne Allen, who heads the Center for Education Reform, for an explanation: students are not memorizing enough facts. You can’t develop problem-solving skills without a base of knowledge. There’s truth to this view, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the tests in question are actually measuring.

The fact is that the only way to draw valid inferences about test results is to consider the scores of students from schools in one country with the scores of students from schools in other countries having comparable demographics. Take the latest Program for International Student Assessment. Schools in the U.S. with less than a 10 percent poverty rate posted a PISA score of 551. When this score is compared with ten countries having similar poverty numbers, the U.S. ranked No. 1. Even when the poverty rate is as high as 25 percent, the U.S. came in at 527, still placing it No. 1.

Clearly, the blanket statement of “learning so little” is more nuanced than Freeman acknowledges. He then compounds his error by his selective amnesia. If he is going to use rankings to try to make his case, what about UNICEF’s report showing the U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world? It’s a vital statistic that can’t be ignored.

Even more important, however, is the entire issue of whether rankings on tests of international competition are nearly as significant as Freeman wants readers to believe. Several years ago, Newsweek published an interview with Singapore’s Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Although Singapore students excel on such math and science tests, American students do better in the real world. “We both have meritocracies,” he explained. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition.”

What about Freeman’s first point about the need for remedial education at UC Berkeley? It’s extremely troubling to learn that even at the flagship campus of the UC system so many students require remediation. But part of the problem is the lack of K-12 alignment with institutions of higher education. At least that’s what the College Board reported (“Percentage of Students in Remedial Classes in College”). This explanation was supported by a 2007 ACT National Curriculum Survey of college professors. It found that professors want students with stronger skills in specific areas, while high schools typically stress a broad range of topics. That’s why it’s so important for college faculty and high school teachers to work together.

Whether “Race to Nowhere” will get the same attention that “Waiting for Superman” did is highly unlikely. Although neither is objective, the latter unfortunately reinforces the views of a growing number of taxpayers - especially those who read The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Gunman in Parkland School Massacre to Plead Guilty
The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Florida high school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said.
4 min read
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP