Pat Quinn, the “RTI Guy,” (not the Pat Quinn who is the Governor of Illinois) recently sent this article to his mailing list, and graciously agreed to allow me to re-post it here. I wanted to share it for further discussion since it speaks very directly to issues of educational performance.
Simply the Best, by Pat Quinn
The United States system of education that has been created for students in Kindergarten through High School is the best educational system in the world. No exceptions. No disclaimers. No doubt. It is simply the best. While other countries may offer excellence in one area or offer an outstanding education to some students, the United States has created and maintained a system that serves everyone at an almost unbelievable level of quality. While no system is perfect, and the United States education system is certainly no exception to that rule, it is vastly superior to any other system in the world.
If this is the case, then why all the bad press? If this is actually true, then why the public onslaught toward our schools and their educators? The answer to these questions is multi-faceted but centers around a few key areas. There are people with agendas other than educational excellence who benefit from bad news about US education. Politics, popularity and ratings all cause people to fire the first shot and shout the loudest about how bad things have become. Yet time and again these very same critics choose our system of education over every other system in the world.
At this point you are probably thinking: “But I have seen the data! Many countries outscore the United States in Math and Science and Reading and...” The list goes on and on. Critics will often take one isolated statistic out of context to prove their point. If you look at one small piece of data, such as the results of a single test given around the world you could use that to paint any picture you wish. A broader look beyond that one small piece will paint a very different scenario. In this larger picture the United States stands at the top. The United States system of education teaches more, helps more, achieves more and in the end still gets criticized more than any system in any country in the world.
Free for All
One of the factors that make the United States educational system head and shoulders above other countries is the free access all children have to an education. This access is not limited to those who pay, as it is in some countries. This access is not limited to those with transportation, as it is in some countries. It is not limited to those who can afford uniforms, or lunch, or even a home. It is not even limited to those who legally reside in this country. Anyone can access this free education for 13 or more years of their life!
The next time someone shows you a country that has higher test scores in science than the United States ask them if free transportation is provided to school from the most remote regions of their country. Ask them if the students need money for uniforms, books, lunch or other costs before they can access the education. Do not even begin to compare our scores with the scores of a country that leaves hundreds of thousands of poor rural children without any education whatsoever. The comparison is false, unfair, and leaves you with an impression that is simply not true. No school system anywhere in the world exceeds the United States in providing free access to education for everyone.
Apples to Apples?
If you are still thinking “But their test scores are higher than ours!” there is one simple fact you need to understand. It is not pretty. It is not fun to think about. But it is true: The broader spectrum of children who take a test, the lower the average score will be. What does this mean? It means if only your top students take the test your average score will be very high. If only your top and middle students take the test your average score will still be quite high. If all of your students take the test your average score will be lower.
Add into this equation other factors such as poverty. Living in poverty reduces your access to health care, books, early childhood education and many other assets that increase learning throughout your life. If a school only tests the wealthiest students the average test score will probably be quite high. The average score will go down if you test all of your students. What do you think happens in countries where the poorest children do not have access to education? Their test scores may appear to be higher than the United States, but you are not comparing apples to apples. This is why free access to all students is such an important factor. Critics of US education who make their living shooting arrows at others will conveniently ignore this factor. Include free access to education for 13 years for all children into your calculations and there will be no doubt: The United States system of education is the premier system in the world.
A Premature Decision
Twenty years ago if a mother carried her unborn baby for 28* weeks and then gave birth, the baby would die. Today in the United States that baby has a very good chance of living. Five years later that child will enter kindergarten* and our school system will be responsible for helping that student read, write and learn math. In other countries in the world that child has a much lower chance of survival. It is not pleasant to think about, but five, ten and fifteen years later that lower live-birth rate will actually improve average test scores.
Suicide rate has a similar effect on test scores. In some of the countries mentioned most often as being “superior” to the United States in education the suicide rate is much higher than it is in the US. A higher suicide rate will actually have the effect of raising average test scores.
The next time someone tells you that the United States ranks fifteenth, twenty-eighth or even tenth among other countries in math or reading or science education ask them what the live birth rate is in the other countries? Ask about the chances of survival for a baby born ten weeks premature. Ask about the youth suicide rate. Then ask yourself if you would trade any of these for higher test scores. Be careful what you measure and where you place your trust.
We are Special
A good measure of any society is how people treat those who are the most vulnerable and least protected. In the world of education these are students with special needs. The United States has developed a system of educating special education students that is vast and complex. It is also the benchmark by which every other system can be measured.
The response to students with exceptional education needs in other countries is wide and varied. In some countries these students are simply excluded. In other countries they are institutionalized. In some countries the parents must find and pay for special services. In the United States these students are not only included and offered full and free access, the schools go above and beyond in their offerings and do so well beyond the student’s 12th year of schooling.
In every school in the United States these students are included in class. In math and reading and social studies they are there benefitting from the instruction the teacher is offering. In addition to this every student in the class is benefitting from the presence of these students. In many cases these students will also be included in our test scores. While other countries do not even see it fit for these students to be included in school, much less in the testing system by which they are evaluated, the United States offers an inclusive and free education to all. It is the gold standard by which other countries simply do not compare favorably.
More is Better
The list of reasons why the United States system of education is the best in the world is long and wide. Our curriculum has breadth that other countries simply would not even consider. As a nation we have placed a value on a wide and varied curriculum covering sciences, arts, language and literature. We have added societal issues to our curriculum like alcohol and drug abuse prevention, stress reduction and relaxation, and physical fitness. Many other countries would not consider adding these areas to their to-do list.
In addition to this we are committed as a nation to keep every option available to nearly every student through twelve years of education. This means that compared to many other nations we do not stratify our curriculum and pigeon-hole our students nearly as much. In the United States almost every 10th grader has course options available so they can attend a four-year college. This sort of access to higher education is simply not available in other countries where they determine at a much earlier age which track you will be pursuing.
The commitment to a wide and varied curriculum that includes societal issues as well as academic subjects is important in the United States. The commitment to make college available to nearly every student entering high school is another value the United States holds high. There is no doubt that doing education this way is more difficult than educating students with a stratified narrow curriculum. Yet despite this difficulty our schools continually step up to the plate and deliver on the promise we make. A promise that other nations cannot make nor fulfill.
Finally, size does matter. Most people who are comfortable cooking dinner for their family would struggle to cook dinner for a group of 200 people. Likewise, countries that educate thousands of students have no idea how their systems would stress if they needed to educate millions. Although critics are everywhere, it is easy to point out how small systems outshine big systems. The problem with this thinking is the belief that nothing would change if the small system would grow. The truth is that any other small system would collapse under the weight that the United States education system bears every single day.
Good but Not Perfect
There is no doubt that the United States education system needs to improve. Our graduation rates in certain areas are unacceptable and the achievement gap between our best schools and our worst is atrocious. But make no mistake: There is not another educational system in the world that could deliver the curriculum that the United States does to the same students at anywhere near the level of quality that this system achieves. It is simply the best.
Why this Matters
Why is this important? This is important not so that the United States can have one more area to claim to be the best. It is important because when the critics raise their voices, politicians and parents hearing only one side of the argument start to look for change. Not necessarily change for the better, but change to be different. Politicians start to look at other countries with inferior systems to ours for models to emulate. This very pattern has hurt US education more than it has helped, because the other system we are copying is not actually better. They are simply smaller, or educate only the top students or the rich students, or limit the opportunities of students early and often.
People who throw test scores around like they are the only measure of a school’s success have done more to hurt education in the United States than nearly any other culprit. They point to other countries with higher scores and never point out limited access, low pre-term live-birth rates, high suicide rates, narrow curriculum, or excluded special needs students. They paint you a picture that is inaccurate and misleading.
When you look at the whole picture there is only one conclusion you can come to: The United States education system is not perfect, but it is the best education system in the world. Bar none. No exceptions. No exclusions. No disclaimers. Simply the best.
About the Author
Pat Quinn is an author, researcher, and speaker. He has been studying successful school systems for over 20 years and is the author of the book Changing Lives: How Parents and Teachers can Change the Lives of Children they Know and Love. His presentations across the country have transformed the lives of students, teachers and administrators. Learn more about Mr. Quinn at www.PatQuinn.com or by calling 309-662-5016. Contact Pat Quinn at pat[at]betterteachingonline.com.
*Note: The original version of this essay stated 20 weeks and first grade, which have been corrected to 28 weeks and kindergarten, respectively.
The opinions expressed in On Performance 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.