International Opinion

International Comparisons: An Excuse to Avoid Meaningful Educational Reform

By Gerald W. Bracey — January 23, 2002 6 min read
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The singularly important finding of PISA and TIMSS: 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.

Add to the list of international comparisons that won’t lead to significant or appropriate education reform the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. And that is too bad, because it could. First the facts: Conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA tested 15-year-olds in 28 OECD nations and four other countries: Brazil, Latvia, Liechtenstein, and the Russian Federation. (“U.S. Students Rank Among World’s Best and Worst Readers,” Dec. 12, 2001.)

On the surface, the news from PISA is ho-hum. On tests of reading “literacy,” mathematics “literacy,” and science “literacy,” American students were strictly average among the OECD nations, and slightly better than average with the four other countries included. (The OECD affixed the word “literacy” in an attempt to convey that the tests did not measure the students’ mastery of school subjects, but their capacity to apply that knowledge to “real life” problems.)

According to The New York Times, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige greeted the results with “dismay.” The press release from the Department of Education quoted Mr. Paige as saying, “Unfortunately, we are average across the board compared to other industrialized nations. In the global economy, these countries are our competitors—average is not good enough for American kids.”

Slogans like ‘don't throw money at the schools,’ ‘all children can learn,’ or ‘no child left behind’ are hypocritical blather, no more.

Secretary Paige thus invoked the demonstrably false link between a nation’s economic health and its kids’ test-taking skills. An analysis of why that link is bogus is another essay, but we can note here that on July 10, 2001, the nation that consistently outscores all others, Singapore, declared its economy in recession. We can observe as well that despite its very high test scores, Japan has lain mired in recession for 11 years and shows no sign of recovery.

International comparisons not only bring forth silly statements about test scores and the economy, they evoke howls of woe and outrage claiming the studies show that the American educational system has failed. When PISA’s predecessor, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, appeared, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. took to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal to declare: “The public school system as we know it has proved that it cannot reform itself. It is an ossified government monopoly that functions largely for the benefit of its employees and interest groups rather than that of children and taxpayers.”

Mr. Paige and Mr. Finn thus missed the singularly important finding of PISA and TIMSS: 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. Of course, if they had noticed this, they might have been forced to take meaningful action. If Mr. Paige and Mr. Finn had asked, “How do the scores of the various ethnic groups rank them among the nations in PISA?” they would have seen the answer in this table giving “Ranks of American Ethnic Groups":

Reading Math Science
White students 2nd 7th 4th
Black Students 26/29th 27/30th 27/30th
Hispanic students 26/29th 27/30th 27/30th

For blacks and Hispanics, the first rank is among the 28 OECD nations; the second includes the other four countries. Asians do not constitute a large enough sample to generate a separate score. TIMSS produced an almost identical table.

To render the conditions of what I will call the Poor People’s Education System more vivid and concrete, consider these vignettes:

  • Classes where teachers encourage students to bring boomboxes and headphones from home to drown out the noise from nearby machines.
  • Schools with limited language, science, and mathematics offerings and no laboratories for any of the three subjects.
  • Schools with obsolete textbooks or too few textbooks to assign homework.
  • Schools with no guidance or support staff and pupil-teacher ratios of 43-to-1.
  • Schools where termites have eaten through books, shelves, and school records and where condemned septic tanks form large dark spots on the playgrounds—where the kids play anyway.
  • Young children picking up beer bottles, condoms, and bullets on school grounds. Officials take them out of reading instruction to perform this “beautification work.”
  • Rats scurrying about bread racks in cafeterias or running in dining areas with fruit in their mouths.
  • Chemistry labs with no chemicals. Literature classes with no books. Computer classes where, as one student puts it, “We sit there and talk about what we would be doing if we had computers.”
  • Classes with no teachers. A parade of substitutes shows movies.
  • Students forced to stand or sit on windowsills—until enough leave to have chairs for all.

The first five of these examples come from a 1990 legal brief filed in Alabama. But before you cluck your tongue over yet more travesties in the intractable Deep South, consider that the second five examples come from a class action in California—filed in 2001. On the other hand, 40 parents in Montgomery County, Md., recently coughed up $200,000 from their own pockets to ensure that renovations of a public elementary school would, according to news reports, “fit in with the upscale surrounding community.”

We can immediately lay hands on $40 billion to rebuild after Sept. 11, and another $15 billion to “bail out” the airlines (among the most profitable industries in the 1990s). We are on the verge of not only repealing the corporate alternative minimum tax, but also of giving companies such as IBM, the Ford Motor Co., General Electric, and General Motors rebates of taxes already collected. In 2000, IBM reported $5.7 billion in pretax U.S. profits, but even with the alternative minimum tax paid only 3.4 percent in taxes. Ford reported $9.4 billion and paid 6.3 percent; General Electric, $21.3 billion and paid 8.8 percent; and General Motors reported $2.9 billion in profits and got a $105 million rebate. From 1994 to 2000, GM reported $22.4 billion in profits and paid zero taxes.

High standards and high-stakes testing are infernal machines of social destruction, exacerbating the achievement gap between rich and poor.

In spite of this largess to corporations, somehow we can’t find enough money to drive the rats and termites out of poverty-ridden schools.

As long as these scandalous conditions persist, what are we to make of slogans like “don’t throw money at the schools,” “all children can learn,” “we must hold all children to high standards,” or “no child left behind”? They are hypocritical blather, no more.

Advocates of high standards and high-stakes testing have described them as engines for social justice. They are instead infernal machines of social destruction, exacerbating the achievement gap between rich and poor.

For instance, in Virginia, after four years of taking state-developed tests, pass rates on subjects like Algebra 1 remain below 10 percent in some city schools. In the adjoining suburbs, the pass rates are 75 percent and up. Kids will soon have to pass these tests to graduate from high school. Then, poor and minority kids in Virginia and in other states will roam the streets without diplomas, unemployable.

The conditions today bring to mind the 1970 words of Robert Coles in his remarkable series, Children of Crisis: “There are moments, and I believe this is one of them, when, whoever we are, observers or no, we have to throw up our hands in heaviness of heart and dismay and disgust and say, in desperation: God save them, those children, and for allowing such a state of affairs to continue, God save us, too.” We didn’t do anything then, either.

Gerald W. Bracey is an independent researcher and writer in Alexandria, Va. His books includeThe War Against America’s Public Schools: Privatizing Education, Commercializing Schools (Allyn & Bacon, 2001) and Put to the Test: An Educator’s and Consumer’s Guide to Standardized Tests (Phi Delta Kappa, 1998; revised edition forthcoming, Spring, 2002).

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as International Comparisons: An Excuse to Avoid Meaningful Educational Reform


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