Part 2 in this series
Part 3—The shape of our demographics: In December 2012, results were released from the latest quadrennial administration of the TIMSS and the PIRLS.
This latest testing had occurred in 2011. As we noted yesterday, American students had performed rather well as compared to their peers around the world. Unless you read the New York Times, where Motoko Rich's news report started like this, gloomy headline included:
RICH (12/11/12): U.S. Students Still Lag Globally In Math and Science, Tests Show"Several nations" did that! The New York Times was finding ways to see the glass slightly empty.
Fourth- and eighth-grade students in the United States continue to lag behind students in several East Asian countries and some European nations in math and science, although American fourth graders are closer to the top performers in reading, according to test results released on Tuesday.
Fretting about how American schools compare with those in other countries has become a regular pastime in education circles. Results from two new reports, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, are likely to fuel further debate.
South Korea and Singapore led the international rankings in math and fourth-grade science, while Singapore and Taiwan had the top-performing students in eighth-grade science. The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science.
Although the average scores among American students were not significantly lower than the top performers, several nations far outstripped the United States in the proportion of students who scored at the highest levels on the math and science tests.
Technically, nothing in that passage is flatly false. Everything in that passage can perhaps be defended as technically accurate, although the claim about "lagging behind some European nations" was a substantial stretch.
Yesterday, we showed you how USA Today reported those same test results. The more plebeian, multi-hued newspaper saw the glass 90 percent full as it reviewed these newest international scores. Hewing to establishment narrative, the New York Times seemed to see the glass 10 percent empty.
Gloom-and-doom frameworks routinely prevail when the American press reports on American schools. In our view, the New York Times went a bit overboard in its gloomy assessment of those TIMSS scores. That said, when the latest PISA scores were released—those from the 2012 testing—American students performed less well as compared to the rest of the world.
Yesterday, we reviewed the achievement gaps which obtained on the 2012 PISA. That is to say, we looked at the international achievement gaps—the gaps which obtained between American kids (in the aggregate) and their peers from other countries.
On the PISA math test, American students performed less well than their counterparts in almost all comparable countries. On this second major testing program, American students stacked up less well than they had on the TIMSS and the PIRLS.
What explains the difference performances on these two testing programs? That question lies beyond the scope of this series. We'll only the note the heavier weight given by the American press to results from the PISA.
As in Amanda Ripley's high-profile book, The Smartest Kids in the World, American journalists tend to discuss the less impressive American results from the PISA while disappearing the more impressive results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS. This tends to advance a gloomy portrait of the way our schools stack up as compared to the rest of the world.
That said, substantial gaps obtained on the PISA between American students and some of their peers in the rest of the world. That was especially true on the PISA math test. But those are the international gaps. For today, we'll review the domestic achievement gaps which obtained on the 2012 PISA and on the 2011 TIMSS.
We refer to the gaps which obtained between different groups of American students on these international tests. It's painful to review these gaps, but they help us see the shape of our ongoing educational challenges.
Let's start with the PISA reading test, where the average score of American students basically matched the OECD average. Because Finland is so often used as a basis for international comparisons, we'll include that nation's scores in all the presentations which follow.
How did different groups of American students score on that test? When we "disaggregate" the American data, painful domestic gaps appear, although one other gap narrows:
Average scores, reading literacy, 2012 PISAOver the past dozen years, Finland has been relentlessly praised, within the press, for its miraculous public schools. Routinely, journalists have flown to Finland for a week of brainwashing by Finland's education ministry, whose love of propaganda is the one negative trait we know about in that small, distant middle-class land.
United States, white students: 519
United States: 498
United States, Hispanic students: 478
United States, black students: 443
Finland has been endlessly praised for its superlative schools. That said, white students in the U.S. essentially matched their peers in Finland on this particular test. In her PISA-friendly book, Ripley seems to say that thirty points on the PISA scale is roughly equal to one academic year. A five-point gap on the PISA scale is a rather modest amount.
On this test, a rather small gap obtained between white American students and their Finnish peers. That said, large gaps obtained between those white American students and their black and Hispanic American peers.
Those painful domestic achievement gaps help define our ongoing educational challenge. What explains their existence?
For ourselves, we'd start with American history. Our benighted ancestors spent several centuries trying to eliminate literacy from the black population. Their horrible efforts failed, but a nation can't spend centuries engaged in such demented practices without reaping the effects of what it so brutally sowed.
For ourselves, we'd start with American history. Other people will suggest other explanations for those large domestic achievement gaps—explanations involving current educational policies and current social practices.
The attempt to explain those punishing gaps lies beyond the scope of this series. We'll continue to explore the domestic and the international gaps in the remaining reports in this series, including such factors as poverty rates and immigration practices.
That said, equally painful domestic gaps obtained on the other PISA tests in 2012. White students were at least within hailing distance of their peers in Finland, where almost every student hails from the majority ethnicity and culture. Black and Hispanic students lagged far behind:
Average scores, math literacy, 2012 PISAThose domestic gaps are painful and large. To the extent that anyone cares, they define a very large part of our ongoing educational challenge.
United States, white students: 506
United States: 481
United States, Hispanic students: 455
United States, black students: 421
Average scores, science literacy, 2012 PISA
United States, white students: 528
United States: 497
United States, Hispanic students: 462
United States, black students: 439
In Finland, almost every student comes from the majority culture. There's very little child poverty. As we'll note in detail tomorrow, there were very few immigrant kids in Finland's student population when these PISA tests occurred.
In the United States, white students—those from the "majority culture"—lagged behind their Finnish peers on the PISA, but not by gigantic amounts. The larger gaps obtained between different groups of American kids, those from our largest population groups.
So far, we've been looking at the gaps which obtained on the 2012 PISA. That said, the United States and Finland had participated, one year before, on the TIMSS and PIRLS.
In our view, what's sauce for the PISA is sauce for the TIMSS. Here's the way the results broke down on the TIMSS math tests:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, 2011 TIMSSAt both grade levels, white students outperformed Finland on the TIMSS math tests. Black and Hispanic students lagged far behind, defining our ongoing challenge to the extent that we care.
United States, white students: 559
United States: 541
United States, Hispanic students: 520
United States, black students: 489
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
United States, white students: 530
United States: 509
United States, Hispanic students: 485
United States, black students: 465
Roughly similar patterns obtained on the TIMSS science tests, and on the PIRLS reading test, which is conducted in Grade 4 only.
By the way, those average scores for white students include all American white students. It includes white kids living in poverty in Appalachia. It includes students in certain states whose traditional stress on education may have lagged behind that in some other states. Even with those demographic challenges, white kids in the U.S. outscored Finland on the TIMSS, came fairly close on the PISA.
In our view, these "disaggregated" test results speak to two basic issues. For starters, they help us see the foolishness of the past dozen years of Finland public school chic.
Let's assume that Finland has wonderful schools. There may be lessons that someone can learn from such schools. But the heart of our educational challenge is built in the populations which don't really exist in Finland—populations affected by our brutal racial history, by our higher incidence of poverty, by the low-income immigration practices which don't exist in Finland.
When American journalists fly to Finland, they can't see such challenges addressed. By and large, such challenges don't exist there.
In our view, these data start to point to the foolishness of Finland chic. Beyond that, the punishing domestic achievement gaps found in these basic data helps us see where our challenges lie.
Can we learn how to address those challenges by having our journalists party in Finland? Tomorrow, we'll look at what Amanda Ripley wrote in her widely-praised book about Finland's alleged success with its immigrant kids.
We're not sure we've ever seen a bigger journalistic con in such a high-profile text. Truly, there's nothing elites won't say and do to advance their narrative about our sad embarrassing schools and the horrible terrible pitiful children and adults within them.
Tomorrow: Immigration here and there