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Education Opinion

“Look Out, the Russians Japanese Irish British Indians and Chinese are coming!”

By Jonathan A. Plucker — April 02, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Indiana University and the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, is guest-posting this week.

Everyone has “uh-oh” moments: A flash of insight accompanied by a sense of impending doom.

I had one of those moments recently, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by noting that I am not an international alarmist. As the title of this post implies, Americans love to have a bogey-man, we just don’t do well in uni-polar worlds.

I’ve tried to explain to undergraduates what it was like to grow up during the Cold War, when I vividly remember the local newspaper running maps of “known targets for Russian nuclear weapons” in our area. Little did we know that the USSR was rapidly imploding. Many of us have similar stories about Mexico in the 50s and 60s, Japan and the Asian Tigers in the 80s and 90s, and the Irish (innovation, high tech manufacturing) and British (finance) during the last bubble. “We need to make drastic changes, or Country X will destroy all that we value and love.” That’s true, except when it isn’t, which seems to be fairly often in our history.

I’m blessed with great colleagues around the globe and friends here at home who know a ton about international education and the major international tests such as PISA and TIMSS. Based on my discussions with these colleagues and my own research, I declare the following to be “The Three Undeniable Tenets of International Education Comparisons.”

1. Americans will always think someone is doing much, much better. It’s our modus operandi, and we are very good at distorting the data to reinforce this view. Worried about China and India? You betcha, look at Shanghai’s PISA scores! But just for fun, Google the PISA results for Macau, Himachal Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. I wonder why those data didn’t make headlines in the New York Times...

2. Test scores generally suggest we aren’t that different. Take the 2007 TIMSS Grade 4 science results, in which U.S. students finished 8th of 36 countries, well above the international average. Massachusetts and Minnesota also had separate scores, with ranking 2nd and 5th, respectively (Indiana placed similarly well in 2003). Granted, as our students get older, they don’t compare as well, but the differences are usually overstated. Are we the best in the world? Nope. But we shouldn’t freak out, either.

3. When there are significant differences between the U.S. and other countries, we almost always emerge with the wrong takeaways. I’m a bigger fan of TIMSS than PISA, as sampling by grade (TIMSS) just feels more appropriate than sampling by age (PISA), but even the PISA results suggest that the situation isn’t as simple as “The U.S. ranks 15th in reading.” As my colleague David Rutkowski and I discussed last summer in Education Week, our results look different if we break out U.S. performance by student race: Asian-Americans scored similar to the 2nd place country, Caucasians scored around 5th or 6th, Hispanic-Americans scored around 40th, and African-Americans scored around 45th. The take-away shouldn’t be “What are the Finns doing that we can copy?”, rather we should be examining why we have such huge disparities within the U.S., or even asking “What allows Asian American and White students to be successful, and how can we help Black and Hispanic students perform similarly well?” Our tendency to ignore our successes, overgeneralize our failures, and become fascinated with other countries’ efforts is understandable given Tenet #1, but ignoring the huge differences in context between countries is short-sighted.

The PISA results provide another good example of the Third Tenet. The Shanghai results are indeed impressive--we should definitely be worrying about them. Despite numerous accusations that the Chinese rigged the tests, the available evidence convinces me that the results are reasonably accurate. People acted stunned, but that’s only because they have been looking at Chinese education from the wrong perspective.

In my experiences, the Chinese see the situation differently. Their national education policy has consistently emphasized creativity and problem-solving over memorization and test performance, and the PISA results are our best evidence yet that they are starting to see results.

For example, we recently finished a forthcoming study that surveyed Chinese and American high school students’ attitudes and how they spent their time. Predictably, American students reported more time socializing with friends and participating in extracurricular activities; Chinese students reported doing lots (and lots and lots) of studying. When we’ve shared drafts with Americans, their reaction is usually, “Our students need to work harder, like the Chinese.” Yet when Chinese colleagues saw the results, their response was, “Chinese students need to stop studying so much for the tests and spend time working on creativity and leadership like American students.”

Similarly, on a recent trip to China, I asked a deliberately provocative question to some colleagues: What does China need to do to take the next steps in the development of its education system? The ensuing discussion involved lots of back-and-forth in Mandarin and considerable hand-waving. After a while, a colleague summarized: “We need to focus on creativity and innovation, and deemphasize the testing and studying.”

I expected that, and I asked what they needed to do to compete with the U.S. educationally and economically. The discussion culminated in a fit of laughter that I knew wasn’t going to be good news. My colleague turned to me, smiled slyly, and said, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”


--Jonathan Plucker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.