Part 1 in this series
Part 2—The international gaps: On major international tests, how well do American students perform, as compared to their peers from around the world?
How well do they do in reading and math? How well do they do as compared to their peers in the major developed nations?
If you read the American press, you're treated to a steady stream of gloomy accounts. In May 2011, you may have read the passage shown below in the Washington Post.
It appeared beneath a suitably gloomy headline: "Is the U.S. doing teacher reform all wrong?"
Originally, Dana Goldstein posted her gloomy piece at her own site under a fuller headline ("Is the U.S. Doing Teacher Reform All Wrong? Lessons from Finland and Shanghai"). At each location, readers were quickly handed this gloomy assessment:
GOLDSTEIN (5/31/11): [M]any American education reformers spent the past decade demanding that districts and states get tough with teachers and provide them with more prescriptive advice on how to improve their practice...According to Goldstein, three countries—Finland, China and Canada—were "kicking our academic butts." It was the latest gloomy account in the Washington Post, an anti-Wobegon publication where our American kids are persistently below average.
But what if the United States is doing teacher reform all wrong?
That’s the suggestion of a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank funded mostly by large corporations and their affiliated foundations. The report takes a close look at how the countries that are kicking our academic butts—Finland, China and Canada—recruit, prepare and evaluate teachers.
Readers of our major news orgs are persistently handed such gloomy accounts. But that very same year, students in Canada and the U.S. participated in one of the world's two major international testing programs.
Students in the neighboring countries took part in the latest administration of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), one of the two major testing programs in which the world's developed nations take part. Canada didn't participate on a national basis, but three of its provinces—including its two most populous provinces—participated as independent entities.
The United States, and miraculous Finland, did participate on a national basis. Nine states from the U.S. also participated as independent entities.
Did the brilliant Canadian kids "kick our academic butts?" How about the Finns? In truth, American butts did not get kicked. These were the average scores recorded in Grade 8 math:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSSDid Finland "kick our academic butts?" Actually no, it didn't. On the TIMSS scale, a 4.5 point difference in average scores amounts to a minor blip.
North Carolina: 536.90
United States: 509.48
Did Canada kick our butts? Ontario, Canada's largest province, barely outscored the United States; it did so by the tiniest sliver. The U.S. slightly outscored Alberta, Canada's fourth largest province.
Meanwhile, states like Massachusetts and Minnesota came close to kicking Finland's butts! The score differentials were rather large. Massachusetts came very close to kicking the butts of Quebec. (Five years later, you've never heard a word about these results.)
Final question: Was the country of China kicking our butts? Then as now, China had never taken part, on a national basis, in any international test. In lemming-like fashion, Goldstein was responding to the very strong scores recorded by kids in the city of Shanghai, which had participated as an independent entity in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world's other major international testing program.
Shanghai's scores went off the charts on the 2009 PISA. In response, American journalists staged their latest gloom-ridden nervous breakdowns. But it soon emerged that Shanghai's schools serve a highly selective student population. For that reason, Shanghai's scores provide no indication of what is actually happening "in China."
Actual experts eventually said that China's nationwide schooling falls far short of that provided in Shanghai. But not before our journalists had penned their latest mandated gloomy tales, in which our hapless kids are constantly getting their butts kicked by their peers from around the world.
Let's be clear. The 2011 TIMSS was just one international test. For the most part, such testing can only give large, imprecise indications of the academic achievements of students in the world's developed nations. But no one kicked our academic butts on that Grade 8 TIMSS math test—at least, no one in the three countries Goldstein hailed.
What general picture does emerge from international tests? Before we answer that general question, let's make sure we're clear about the two testing programs in question.
The TIMSS (the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) has been in operation since 1995. As such, it's the grand-daddy of them both. Systematic international testing is a fairly new critter.
The TIMSS tests students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 in both math and science. (An affiliated program, the PIRLS, tests fourth-graders in reading.) It operates on a four-year cycle. Results from the most recent testing, in 2015, haven't yet been released.
The PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) was first administered in the year 2000. As such, it's the new kid on the international testing block.
The PISA tests 15-year-old students in reading, math and science. It operates on a three-year cycle. As with the TIMSS, so too with the PISA: Results from last year's testing haven't been released.
No nation is required to take part in these testing programs. That said, the United States has regularly participated in both. Other developed nations take part in one or the other or both.
Finland shot to international stardom as a result of its strong results on the inaugural 2000 PISA. In 2011, it took part in the TIMSS for the first time, with results which were less impressive.
What general picture emerges from the TIMSS and the PISA? Let's break our international tournament down into two heats:
Asian tigers versus the world: Without question, a set of Asian nations tend to outperform the world on the TIMSS and the PISA. We refer to three major nations—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—and to a pair of smaller entities, Singapore and Hong Kong.
These Asian polities do tend to kick the academic butts of the rest of the world. At one point, Finland seemed to be in their class. All in all, that no longer seems to be true.
Students in those Asian states do "kick our academic butts" on these international tests. That said, they kick everyone's else's butts too.
It's worth noting the facts that a price may get paid for this kind of academic success. South Korea's education minister has begged the United States not to emulate his country's manic education culture, in which kids go to school all day, then spend all night in their evening academies. We'll have more on this next week.
United States versus everyone else: Students in those Asian states do "kick our academic butts" on international tests. That said, American kids actually don't get their butts kicked by the rest of the world's developed nations. That is especially true if the United States is compared to large, diverse developed nations, rather than to smaller middle-class boutique states.
At the start of the century, a journalistic tulip craze formed around miraculous Finland. Journalists flew off to enjoy their free week in the enjoyable middle-class nation, then returned to spout the nostrums they'd been successfully fed.
Finland is a small corner of Europe; especially on the PISA, it has tended to outscore its larger European neighbors. That said, Massachusetts is a larger corner of the U.S., and in the most recent test administrations, Massachusetts tended to outscore Finland on the TIMSS, match it on the PISA.
Our journalists have fed the nation a steady diet of propaganda about international tests. In next week's reports, "Where the Con Games Are," we'll consider the provenance of these ubiquitous story-lines.
The gloom and doom have been general over the past many years. Americans have been trained to think that our students' performance is embarrassing, as compared to the performance of their international peers.
We're supposed to think, in knee-jerk fashion, that something is horribly wrong with our schools. For ourselves, we often wonder what's wrong with other countries' schools when we examine the full range of scores on the TIMSS, the PIRLS and the PISA.
On the international scene, the achievement gaps can be large. But that's mainly true if we look at the gaps between those Asian nations and the rest of the world.
When we compare our kids to the rest of the world, the gaps just aren't that big. Often, there are no gaps at all. Often, the United States is on the winning side of the gaps, although you'll simply never hear that from our gloom-ridden, script-typing press corps.
Massachusetts kids kicked Finland's butts on that TIMSS math test! Minnesota kids pretty much kicked their butts too. We'll return to the international gaps in part 4 of this week's report. Tomorrow, though, we'll bring it on home in a sobering way:
We'll look at where the achievement gaps are on our domestic tests.
Tomorrow: Where the gaps are on the NAEP