What are we doing wrong in the US education system?
The short answer: nothing.
The appropriate way to evaluate a system is based on what it is designed to do, and the education system is not designed to do anything. Rather, throughout 200 years of public education, it has been given a sequence of demands, and has responded by adapting organically.
Among other things, the system has been required to:
-Prepare young men for factories and the military, and young women for marriage and domestic service
-Serve as a mechanism for upward social mobility (Dewey)
-Produce an educated electorate (Jefferson)
-Generate 'well-rounded' individuals
-Serve as a minor league for professional sports
-Fix major social problems (Head Start)
-Provide enough science and engineering majors to keep the economy working
-Graduate most students, each immediately ready to be successful in higher education, or prepared for a job
All of that with no recognition that some of these goals are in direct conflict.
For example, demanding increased performance necessarily means that more students will fail to clear the bar. Alternatively, demanding increased graduation rates necessarily leads to grade inflation and lowering the bar. There is no way around this, as it is precisely the problem of Type I and Type II errors in statistical testing.
The over-emphasis on sports in some districts, and the effect on grade inflation, has been well-recorded. What is rarely noted is the effect on the other students. If unprepared student athletes, or others who seem to put no effort into their studies, still progress to the higher grades, what is the immediate incentive to work hard?
If teachers are trying to fix every social problem in their classrooms, where is the time for learning? In my experience, the more talented students tend to get less attention, because 'they will learn anyway'. This is a recipe for mediocrity.
In short, before we try yet another major overhaul of the system, we should perhaps first decide the goals to be met, and check if those goals are achievable.
By Timothy Shane Norfolk - now retired after a lifetime of university mathematics teaching and research. You can find out more about Dr. Norfolk and his work by visiting his site.
By Jennifer Rassmusen - Owner of Challenge Island, where engineering meets imagination.
Multiple times every year, the newspapers, magazines, and media outlets banner headlines that United States public school students are lagging other countries in their learning. These declarations further fan the fires that teachers and the US education system are failing.
As a high school teacher, I become increasingly frustrated that most Americans will not look beyond the headline. Most will blithely accept that these facts are true. These facts are misleading and often incorrect. We (teachers collectively) shout our frustration out into the ether every time a news organization repeats how low United States schools are scoring compared to other schools globally.
Why do these erroneous conclusions frustrate US teachers?
How do they undermine US teachers?
What are the major flaws with using the data from the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment), and TMISS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study?
We teachers become frustrated because we know that the students tested in the US and other countries are incongruent. Many in the public – private individuals and government individuals – don’t understand the background for the data. US teachers want the differences recognized and acknowledged.
Here is a small list of exceptions that these data collection tests, the writers of articles about these data collection tests, and governmental decisions brought about from these data collection tests get wrong. Perhaps some will see that all data is not created equal.
1. Many countries globally do not teach students with either physical or mental disabilities (special education students – see Singapore and Estonia for example) in the same schools as averagely-abled students. The US does. This means that these students are in our testing data and in other countries these data points are absent.
2. Many countries’ immigrant populations or non-native language speaking student populations are quite small. In the US, certain districts have high immigrant or ELL populations. If students don’t understand the language or culture of the test, will they test well? No, they will not. Immigrant and ELL populations are in the US testing data and in other countries these data points are so small they make no or minor statistical impact.
3. Many countries track their students between the ages of 12 and 13. What does this mean? It means that students who aren’t academically ready to pursue high school toward college or are ready to pursue an apprenticeship for a trade don’t move on to secondary schools where PISA or TMISS tests are given. Why is this important? In the US, every student moves toward high school whether academically college or career minded. All these students are tested. However only those who moved on toward academic high schools in other countries are tested. Therefore, it is an all students versus some students test pool.
Parents, policy makers, and news media need to understand that looking at the data collected by these tests is essentially comparing apples to oranges. Parents, policy makers, and news media need to stop blaming US teachers because US schools choose to educate everyone – not just the ones who can tick all the correct boxes demographically.