You see it almost everywhere. “New data shows that India has more honors students than the US has students” and other such warnings of the educational apocalypse. We are reminded of the flattened world and global competition on an almost daily basis in education. For most of the 20th century there was an “other” country who’s education system was going to see it outpace the US economically. Of course the USSR comes to mind, but recall we were also scared of Japan before our attention shifted to China and India. If we wanted to look at PISA scores as the source of our fears we should probably prepare for Finland’s global ascendancy.
But what is it we are actually afraid of? Living in the wealthiest country in the world, regardless of global debt, means that whatever we may say of our education system we can’t pretend that it does not work. Despite all the rhetoric, the reporting of state high-stakes tests like box scores in newspapers, US schools still contain within them the most likely to succeed in global markets. How do I know? Because a math score on the SAT means next to nothing in the grand scheme and money/income does.
There’s also an even uglier side to US test scores on things like NAEP and PISA than what is so often reported. Were we to only take the testing data from white students in the US, they would rank first in every area from math and science to reading and writing (Berliner, 2007). That these students are on pace to no longer make up the majority of our students in public schools is still not a legitimate reason to think the US will lose its global hegemonic position. Here’s why:
Students in the US do not score as highly on standardized tests as their international peers. Yet, US people are the most affluent in the world. The US is the center of innovation and cultural processes (movies, music, and so on) in the world. US television programs are watched in every corner of the globe. Our global dominance is not at stake in high stakes tests. In fact, the statistics that often put us around number 20 in the world rankings in math and science prove something important about standardized tests: they truly do not lead to higher earnings on a national scale.
So rather than worry about how a high school in Indiana compares to one in Shanghai, lets examine the ways in which we can make schools in the US better for the people actually in them. Rather than force more rigid banking methods of math and science instruction, lets encourage schools and teachers to be creative with their instruction and center their pedagogy in the lived experiences of their students. Let’s forge a curriculum that aims to push our students’ thinking rather than beat them into submission with standardized tests that determine how much funding their school gets next year.
The tests don’t tell us anything we don’t know. Poor students do not do as well on tests as rich students. It is not difficult to make very accurate predictions about test score performance by merely looking at the zip code a school is in and some census data on the socio-economic status of most of the folks in that area. The notion that we are competing with children all over the world is real in some ways, but not in the ways the discourse of school competition has framed it. The fear of our schools failing to live up to the standard set by other countries is simply a move by the right in this country to take away the credibility of public schools: the largest state run enterprise in our country. It is not about our children falling behind in comparison to their international peers, for surely we have been being beaten on standardized tests for as many generations as those tests have been available. Rather, standardized tests are yet another way in which the right has framed the discourse around schooling this country.
So, my left leaning friends, let us stop considering and reading and talking about “international competition” for our schools and focus on what we really need to be doing: making schools for children in the United States centers for critical engagement with the world and the word.