International Opinion

Comparing Ourselves With the World

April 21, 2009 8 min read
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Can any assessment account for the differences between a rural classroom in Korea and one in France, or Taiwanese textbooks compared to the learning resources available in a Russian school? Why invest student time, teacher energy, and school cooperation in an international assessment? ...

In the short term, the reports from the test will provide insights into possible achievement targets and how we might improve academic achievement in the United States. They will be useful in spurring greater efforts to support our schools.

In the long run, the assessment techniques polished through projects like the International Assessment of Educational Progress will be repeatedly refined, to the benefit of educators in all nations.

They, in turn, will advance from asking “why on earth” about the testing process itself to understanding “how on earth” each distinctive society prepares its children for their successful contribution to a shared future. That is, educators will learn from each other.

That’s the bottom line.

Archie E. Lapointe, then the executive director of the Center for the Assessment of Educational Progress at the Educational Testing Service, which sponsored the 1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress, in his Feb. 6, 1991, Commentary “Why Gauge Students on a Global Scale.”

Yet another international survey of educational achievement has ranked the United States near the bottom of the academic hierarchy. The usual pundits are wringing their hands about the schools and about the implications of the scores for American “competitiveness” and for the future of society. American education is certainly in trouble, and the current climate of budget cuts is making the schools worse. There is a very direct relationship between good schools and a robust economy and a healthy society. Yet, one must be somewhat skeptical about these international comparisons. Crossnational educational comparisons are tricky—what produces good test-takers in Korea may not work in New York.

Philip G. Altbach, then a professor of education and the director of the National Comparative Education Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in his Feb. 26, 1992, Commentary “What International Comparisons Don’t Tell Us.”

The conventional wisdom is that only American schools are in deep trouble and that we have much to learn from Japan, where there are high academic standards and expectations of students, rigorous social discipline, and high teacher status. I discovered [on a recent trip there], somewhat to my surprise, that Japanese education was not Nirvana and was being subjected to increasingly severe criticism by political and business leaders, as well as the general public. In fact, one might reasonably predict that deteriorating economic conditions in Japan may well make their schools a scapegoat for larger societal problems in much the same way as schools here were blamed for adverse economic conditions in the 1970s and 1980s.

In essence, the rather harsh criticism I heard of the Japanese system sounded very much like the condemnations of our system. Japanese schools are being criticized, for example, for not adapting sufficiently to ever-changing workforce needs in an increasingly competitive global economy. The debate now raging in Japan is somewhat analogous to the debate here. Old pedagogical methodologies are not working in either nation and, somewhat paradoxically, the Japanese envy some of the characteristics of our system that are so roundly excoriated here.

Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership from 1981 through 2001, in his Oct. 21, 1998, Commentary “Is the Grass That Much Greener?”

The singularly important finding of the Program for International Student Assessment and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study: We don’t have a “public school system as we know it.” We have two. One is for poor and minority students; the other is for the rest of us.

Gerald W. Bracey, an independent researcher and writer, in his Jan. 23, 2002, Commentary “International Comparisons: An Excuse to Avoid Meaningful Educational Reform.”

As an educational researcher and writer, I have had the opportunity to travel throughout the world. In conversations with education policymakers, I have made an interesting, though unsettling, discovery. The new purpose of education around the world can be expressed succinctly: It is to improve, or in rare cases to maintain, a country’s standing in quantitative international comparisons, most often the Program for International Student Assessment or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with having a high standing in some kind of international comparison. No doubt there are things to be learned from effective schools in countries like Finland or Singapore. And yet, the more I have thought about it, the more I have become convinced that the goal of topping the international comparisons is a foolish one, and the rush to raise one’s rank a fool’s errand. In the process of pursuing a higher rank, educational leaders are ignoring deeper and more important purposes of education.

Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, in his Sept. 14, 2005, Commentary “Beyond the Herd Mentality.”

Educators in Asian countries have begun to ask themselves whether the development of the skills and dispositions necessary to engage ideas and examine them critically (and creatively) has been shortchanged in their education systems. Perhaps developing these skills is an important part of what it means to become educated. The best thinking is very often collaborative rather than solitary. But collaborative intellectual engagement comes with what may be a high cost from the Asian perspective: the at least temporary sacrifice of agreement and harmony.

Still, the most conspicuous part of the Asian success formula is what goes on at home, between parent and child. And here another case can be made for a serious downside to the formula. Parents can inculcate in their children the belief that excellence in their schoolwork leads to family pride, material wealth, and social status (and that failure to achieve excellence leads to the opposite—shame and disgrace). The drawback, however, is that the relationship is an instrumental one: Investment and outcome—means and end—bear only an arbitrary connection. No intrinsic relation is apparent between means and end—investment of effort and outcome.

What is it that school provides, such that acquiring it confers lifelong benefits, and failing to do so condemns one to failure? Unless students can construct authentic answers to this question, ones that they themselves believe, the relation between investment and outcome remains arbitrary. Here then lies the downside.

Deanna Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in her March 8, 2006, Commentary “Does the Asian Success Formula Have a Downside?”

We went through an unproductive “competitiveness” fad in the 1980s, when, to quote the seminal A Nation at Risk commission report, Japanese automobiles, South Korean steel mills, and German machine tools were our adversaries. The personal computer had yet to be placed in anyone’s home, let alone contained within a cellphone made in China and serviced from India.

Now, in an information world without economic borders, our public rhetoric is inexplicably again so obsessed with “others” catching up and exceeding us that we fail to see how those “others” are moving forward together, and, in higher education, valuing the student as a persisting seeker of knowledge.

If we do our homework better in these matters, we might not just be walking around while the rest of the world moves on.

Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and formerly a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, in his Nov. 8, 2006, Commentary “Border Blind Side.”

With every new administration in Washington, and every hot new trend in education, we hear arguments for full-scale renovation of the system. One-size-fits-all rarely works in individual schools, however, let alone for the entire country. Why don’t schools follow the model of businesses and tap into the global marketplace of ideas that have worked elsewhere?

Patrick F. Bassett, the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, in his Feb. 20, 2008, Commentary “What the Finns Know Shouldn’t Surprise Us (But Does).”

The fact is that test-score comparisons tell us little about the quality of education in any country. The first problem is sampling. For example, which schools and students are selected to participate? And, after the schools and students are selected, which ones choose to participate? Which regions of the country are represented? Are vocational schools included? To what extent have children from low-income families dropped out of school before the test is administered? Are children with disabilities tested? Language-minority children? The point is that the more selective the sample, the higher the country’s average score.

The second problem in interpreting international comparisons is poverty. We know that poverty plays a major role in educational achievement, and that countries vary enormously in the level of poverty and the extent to which low-income children are even in school to be tested. A country that has a relatively high level of child poverty but also encourages low-income students to stay in school will be at a disadvantage in the test-score comparisons.

Although it is true that some countries might place more emphasis on, say, math than the United States—and, therefore, do better in the test-score comparisons—there is no evidence that high math scores are associated with advantageous trade balances. ...

The point I want to stress is that it is virtually impossible to isolate the effects of each of these factors on countries’ rankings and, therefore, it is unrealistic to attempt to infer the quality of education from the test-score comparisons. The difficulty of interpreting international test-score comparisons is also repeated in state comparisons of test scores, and comparisons of schools within districts under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Iris C. Rotberg, a research professor of education policy at George Washington University, in her June 11, 2008, Commentary “Quick Fixes, Test Scores, and the Global Economy.”

Library Director Kathryn Dorko contributed to this compilation.

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Comparing Ourselves With the World


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