Student Well-Being

Could Changes in School Culture Make U.S. Schools More Competitive?

By Evie Blad — December 03, 2013 1 min read
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We know the class clown’s daily dirty joke standup routines and Olympic-qualifying spit wad shooting can distract his teacher, but is it also hurting the United States’ competitiveness internationally?

The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment results released Tuesday showed U.S. students have performed at roughly the same level since 2009 while other countries have made significant gains, according to this Education Week story.

Nineteen countries and education systems scored higher than the United States in reading on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, up from nine systems when the test was last administered in 2009. Germany and Poland, for instance, have seen steady gains on the reading assessment over time, and are now ahead of the United States. In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago, the results released Tuesday show. The nations that eclipsed the U.S. average included not only traditional high fliers like South Korea and Singapore, but also Austria, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam. In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009."

Followers of education policy have sliced and diced the data in every direction to try to determine who to blame for U.S. performance and what can be changed to improve it. And that includes folks who closely follow issues related to school climate, classroom management, and student discipline.

Of particular note to these groups are pages 33-34 of this related report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which explore student and school leader survey data related to classroom discipline, truancy and teacher/student relationships. Here are some of the report’s findings.

On Discipline:

The disciplinary climate is measured by how often students do not listen to the teacher during mathematics lessons; whether there is noise and disorder; if the teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down; if students cannot work well; and if students do not start working for a long time after the lesson begins. The majority of students in OECD countries enjoy orderly classrooms in their mathematics classes. Some 73% of students report that they never or only in some lessons feel that students do not start working for a long time after the lesson begins; 68% that they never or only in some lessons feel that students do not listen; 68% that noise never or only in some lessons affects learning; 72% that their teacher never or only in some lessons has to wait a long time before students settle down; and 78% of the students attend classrooms where they feel they can work well practically most of the time. The United States does reasonably well on this measure, but well below Japan, for example, which shows a significantly better disciplinary climate. What is also noteworthy is that there is considerable variation on this measure among students in the United States, and the 25% of students who reported the poorest disciplinary climate are almost twice as likely to be poor performers. This odds ratio is the second highest among all OECD countries, after Israel, against OECD of 1.9 average odds ratio of 1.6."

On Truancy:

Among OECD countries, after accounting for per capita GDP, systems with higher percentages of students who arrive late for school tend to have lower scores in mathematics, as do systems with higher percentages of students who skip school. Some 30% of 15-year-old students in the United States reported that they had arrived late for school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA test, slightly below the OECD average of 35%. By contrast, around 15% to 19% of students in Hong Kong-China, Liechtenstein, Shanghai-China and Viet Nam had arrived late at least once, and only 9% of students in Japan. In the United States some 20% of students reported that they had skipped a day of school in the previous two weeks, above the OECD average of 15% and in contrast with Colombia, Hong Kong-China, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein, Macao-China, the Netherlands, Shanghai-China, Switzerland and Chinese Taipei, where fewer than 5% of students did so."

It makes sense that missing time in the classroom would lead to lower student achievement. And this is probably the most objective measure included in the survey data—you either missed school or you didn’t.

Because the other questions related to climate and discipline are subjective (Do you have a positive relationship with your teacher? Do students listen during math lessons?), it’s difficult to call this the smoking gun related to student achievement. Perceptions of what could be considered a strict teacher or a disruptive student probably vary widely depending on the cultural norms of the students who answered the questions.

It’s important to note that correlation is not causation. The differences between the United States’ and other countries’ education systems cannot be reduced to a single statistic. But that doesn’t mean this data can be disregarded entirely, particularly the variations in student responses within the U.S. Our class clown’s antics are probably not the sole reason U.S. students aren’t outperforming their international peers, but they may be a factor in his classmates’ inability to learn and retain challenging material.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.