FOOLED ABOUT SCHOOLS: Taking a look at the record!


Part 2—The AP pours on the gloom: Where do American students stand in the latest international test scores?

(For part 1 in this award-winning series, click here.)

Last Monday, the TIMSS and the PIRLS released the scores from their 2011 international tests. At the Associated Press, Josh Lederman’s news report leaned fairly hard on the gloom:
LEDERMAN (12/11/12): US students far from first in math, science

American fourth-graders are performing better than they were four years ago in math and reading, but students four years older show no such progress, a global study released Tuesday revealed.

Although the U.S. remains in the top dozen or so countries in all subjects tested, the gap between the U.S. and the top-performing nations is much wider at the eighth-grade level, especially in math.

"When you start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time," said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which coordinated the U.S. portion of the international exam.

Even where U.S. student scores have improved, many other nations have improved much faster, leaving American students far behind many of their peers especially in Asia and Europe.
For our money, Lederman was straining to see the glass not especially full. As he continued, he reached the claim which drove the AP’s gloomy headline.

Unlike Finland and Singapore, the United States “is far from leading the pack:”
LEDERMAN (continuing directly): With an eye toward global competitiveness, U.S. education officials are sounding the alarm over what they describe as a recurring theme when American students are put to the test. Lamenting what he described as "sober cautionary notes," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said it was unacceptable that eighth-grade achievement in math and science are stagnant, with U.S. students far less likely than many Asian counterparts to reach advanced levels in science.

American students still perform better than the global average in all subject areas, the study found, although students from the poorest U.S. schools fall short.

But the U.S. is far from leading the pack, a distinction now enjoyed by kids in countries like Finland and Singapore who outperformed American fourth-graders in science and reading.
For the record, Finland is a middle-class, unicultural nation of some 5 million people. Singapore is a wealthy city-state with a similar small population.

Those nations did outperform American fourth-graders in reading on this latest international test. But only one other nation did—Russia. Meanwhile, those American fourth-graders outscored their peers in these well-known nations:
Nations outscored in reading by U.S. fourth-graders, 2011 PIRLS (partial list):
Denmark, Croatia, Taiwan, Ireland, England, Canada, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Israel, Portugal, Hungary, Slovak Republic, New Zealand, Slovenia, Austria, Lithuania, Australia, Poland, France, Spain, Norway, Belgium (Flemish region)
Really? American fourth-graders outscored their peers in England, Canada, Germany, France? In Australia, Spain, Italy and Taiwan—and in a host of smaller European nations?

Would a reader gain any idea of this fact from reading this gloomy AP report? Would that reader ever guess that U.S. fourth-graders were outscored by their peers in only three actual nations, plus Hong Kong and Northern Ireland, even as they kicked the keisters of fourth-graders spanning the globe?

Obviously, a reader would get no such impression from this AP report. Nor would that reader understand that there was no testing in eighth-grade reading—the PIRLS tests only fourth-graders—since Lederman’s opening paragraphs plainly implied that U.S. eighth-graders were “showing no progress” and losing ground in that (untested) subject.

Alas! So it goes when our biggest news orgs report on public schools. That doesn’t mean that American students really are “number one” in the world, since that plainly isn’t the case. It doesn’t mean that Lederman’s news report is wrong in all particulars.

(For every nation's score on the PIRLS, click here, scroll down to page 8.)

But in the passages we have posted, Lederman leaned on the scales again and again, tipping his report toward the gloom and despair. One day later, the Washington Times reported on the new international test scores—and its headline helped us recall where all this propaganda has taken the American discourse:
WASHINGTON TIMES (12/12/12): Jindal slams teachers unions in mediocrity of U.S. schools
Are U.S. schools “mediocre?” Can that claim be derived from these new international test scores?

Those are matters of judgment. But again and again, major news orgs pour on the gloom (and the misstatements) when it comes to the performance of American students and teachers. This fuels the drive to condemn our ratty teachers and their infernal teachers unions—the same teachers who were in American classrooms when these results were recorded:
PIRLS, Grade 4 reading, 2011:
The United States was outscored by (full list):
Hong Kong, Russia, Finland, Singapore, Northern Ireland

The United States outscored (partial list):
Denmark, Croatia, Taiwan, Ireland, England, Canada, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Israel, Portugal, Hungary, Slovak Republic, New Zealand, Slovenia, Austria, Lithuania, Australia, Poland, France, Spain, Norway, Belgium (Flemish region)
Think of the Connecticut teachers you’ve seen on TV in recent days. Have they seemed like the ratty, grasping people often described in the war against unions? And do you mind if we send a note to Gail Collins and her legion of misled readers:

Many teachers in Texas schools are hard-working, upstanding people too. It’s good solid fun when tribal players like Collins teach Yankees to sneer at these red-state rubes—at teachers whose students score very high on our own most reliable testing program.

But Lady Collins’ uninformed sneering only fuels the movement which issues headlines like the one found in the Washington Times last week. It’s fun to clown about schools in Texas—and it makes pseudo-liberals feel good. But it grossly misleads the public and it fuels reactionary movements.

Important note: On international tests, American students rank better in reading than in science and math. And just as Lederman suggested, American fourth-graders tend to rank better in the world than their eighth-grade siblings do.

(Just a guess: There’s no such thing as “Fast Times at Singapore Middle.”)

That said, we think Lederman tended to err on the side of the gloom in his report for the AP—a report which went to newspapers all over this endlessly misinformed country. But that is a matter you’ll have to judge when we show you the rest of the scores.

For today, we thought we’d leave it right here, with those scores from the new fourth-grade reading test. Yes, American students were outperformed by Singapore and Finland—although the gap in the scores wasn’t nearly as large as the AP report suggested.

But from that gloomy news report, would you ever have imagined how high our fourth-graders actually stood in the world? Or are you possibly saying this:

Huh! I wouldn’t have thought that!

If you’re saying something like that, you’ve perhaps been misled a bit through the years. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the new math and science scores—and you can make further judgments.

Tomorrow: Math and science

Lederman’s next paragraph: As Lederman continues, the gloom continues too.

So does the misdirection, which is almost surely deliberate:
LEDERMAN (continuing directly): The results of the study, conducted every four years in nations around the world, show mixed prospects for delivering on that promise. A nation that once took pride in being at the top of its game can no longer credibly call itself the global leader in student performance. Wringing their hands about what that reality portends for broader U.S. influence, policymakers worry it could have ripple effects on the economy down the line, with Americans increasingly at a competitive disadvantage in the international marketplace.
From that highlighted statement, a reader is likely to get the impression that the United States was once “the global leader in student performance.” That isn’t true, of course. And please note—Lederman is very slippery in the way he seems to assert that.

Readers are being conned at that point; almost surely, they're being deliberately misled. But this has been the reliable norm for a very long time—and you will never see the career liberal word issue a word of protest.


  1. Expect for the last phrase of the last sentence, great post. By the way, when did the Washington Times (aka "the Moonie Blog")become a major news org.?

  2. I'm trying to understand why the latest scores on these International tests are not being celeberated. We are a large multicultural multilingual country and given that I think these scores are a reason for guarded optimism. Also, why is there so little comment about Massachusetts, which has a larger and more diverse population than either Finland or Singapore and yet did VERY well on the 8th grade science and math tests. Why aren't journalists and reformers re-routing their flights from Helsinki to Boston ? My guess is that the Massachusetts education reform process has been long (20 years) and difficult and multi-faceted, that is there is no simple singular takeaway from what's been done, so it's not easy for any educational ideologue to claim victory. Also the success here is imperfect at best, but if people are looking for ways to improve education in the US they might be better served looking to Massachusetts than to Finland and Singapore.

    1. Plus, it doesn't fit the narrative so it does. not. compute. Literally, our press corps is unable to come to terms with such information.

  3. Time to forward this series to your favorite ed reporter.

  4. I was feeling good about the completely unheralded info we read here concerning U.S.schools, until I had a conversation with a teacher acquaintance this past week.

    She says that students are allowed to endlessly retake achievement tests until they score well on them.

    I was completely taken back by her statement and her general negativity about the system. We were interrupted before I could ask if test retaking was a nation-wide policy.