WHERE THE CHALLENGES ARE: The challenges facing our public schools!


Part 1—Two different types of challenge:
Way back, in early September, we started this series of reports with a back-to-school phone call to C-Span.

The phone call came from a C-Span viewer in Mississippi. He had heard about a magical land, a place which had much better schools.

All across the political spectrum, the caller's beliefs have become quite familiar over the past dozen years. They help define two types of challenge we now face as a people.

The caller started by saying he was "a William F. Buckley conservative." Proceeding from there, he told a familiar tale:
CALLER FROM MISSISSIPPI (9/3/16): I did a quick little research just to find out where in the world is, are schools very successful academically, science, math, reading. And the one that really rose to the top was Finland.

And again, for my conservative brethren, I'm looking over the horizon, you know we go with what works. And I'm just broad-brushing some things here about Finland.

And this is kind of my public school experiences, you feel like you're being warehoused. Finland emphasizes play. It's just interesting that that's part of their, just the way they operate.

They actually don't have very much homework, and it's just— I encourage everybody to just google Finland's education system and look at what works.

And the school day is shorter. And again, I look at— You have young people who have a lot of energy and they're being put in these warehouses for, you know, great lengths of time. And they have energy, and that's where you need dynamic presentation and teaching in the school. And then the kids need to be set free.

But again, our system is oriented this way, where you're holding them for a set number of hours, and it's to make the machine work.

C-SPAN HOST: All right, that's Edwin from Jackson, Missippi. And we did show an article on-air just now, I believe it's from Smithsonian.com, "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful," that looks a little bit deeper into that issue.
The caller was concerned with the shortcomings of our "system." He'd heard that Finland's "education system" is much better than ours.
In terms of public education, he'd heard that Finland is the place you go to "look at what works."

As the caller spoke, C-Span's producers had indeed showcased that Smithsonian article, "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?" The report had appeared in September 2011, one in an endless stream of reports about that small country's great schools.

That phone call, and that Smithsonian piece, help define two kinds of challenge we currently face as a nation. We'll consider those interwoven types of challenge in our reports this week.

On the one hand, we confront educational challenges—challenges concerning the operation and performance of our public schools.

In at least one major respect, it's fairly easy to define the general shape of our educational challenge. Over the past fifteen years, Finland's reputation has been based on its students' performances on international tests of reading, science and math.

Test scores can only provide a rough measure of a nation's educational success. But it's fairly easy to describe the way American students, in the aggregate, perform on these international tests, as compared to their peers in the rest of the developed world.

In the aggregate, how do American students perform on international tests? For starters, a trio of Asian nations—South Korea, Japan and Taiwan—outperform the United States by a fairly substantial margin.

That said, these Asian tigers also outperform the rest of the developed world. To the extent that test scores are a measure of educational success, these Asian nations have outperformed the world.

The Asian tigers have been leading the world on international tests. But among the rest of the world's developed nations, American students, in the aggregate, have performed reasonably well.

American performance has been better on one set of international tests, The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and on its companion program, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

American performance has been less impressive on the second major international battery, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). But if we consider both international testing programs, American students, in the aggregate, have performed reasonably well when compared to the rest of the world, Asian tigers excepted.

Over the next few days, we'll be taking a few final looks at these international test scores. But to the extent that we value performance on standardized tests, the performance of the Asian tigers may offer us a type of educational challenge.

That said, a second, daunting educational challenge is easily seen in the results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), our most reliable domestic testing program.

What type of challenge appears on the NAEP? Among different parts of our student population, substantial "achievement gaps" appear in the results from these domestic tests. White students tend to score substantially better, in both reading and math, than their black and Hispanic peers. These gaps are smaller than they once were, but they remain quite large.

These substantial achievement gaps can also be seen in American scores on the TIMSS and the PISA. We'll take some final looks at those achievement gaps before the week's reports are finished. But on these results from the most recent PISA reading test, it's easy to spot a daunting educational challenge:
Average scores, reading literacy, 2012 PISA
United States, Asian-American students: 550
Japan: 538
South Korea: 536
Finland: 524
Canada: 523
Taiwan: 523
United States, white students: 519
Poland: 518
Australia: 512
Germany: 508
France: 505
United Kingdom: 499
United States: 498
Italy: 490
Spain: 488
United States, Hispanic students: 476
Russia: 475
United States, black students: 443
According to Amanda Ripley, 39 points on the PISA scale is taken to be the (rough) equivalent of one academic year. For a fuller set of results, click here.

In our view, it's important to keep looking at these "disaggregated" American scores, however unpleasant that assignment may be. In fairness, that's only true if we want to run on a full set of information and facts, rather than on official approved story-lines, scripts and tales.

The large gaps which obtain between different groups of American kids define one of our great ongoing educational challenges. That said, data like these may tend to challenge the general claims which have been relentlessly sold to that C-Span viewer.

On the TIMSS and the PISA, our nation's white students actually score rather well as compared to their peers from the rest of the world. Asian-American students often outperform the rest of the world.

The bulk of our challenge lies in the average scores of our black and Hispanic students. Viewed in this light, our biggest ediucational challenge concerns the large achievement gaps which still exist between our major demographic groups.

There's a good chance that the C-Span caller from Mississippi has heard about our "achievement gaps." He's probably heard that these large gaps have persisted through the years—that our floundering public schools have utterly failed to erase them.

That C-Span caller has heard that line because it offers a gloomy assessment of our "education system." At the start of the current school year, decades of gloomy assessments led him to make his call to C-Span, in which he expressed his own gloomy thoughts about our public schools.

People like the C-Span caller have been assailed in recent decades with deeply gloomy assessments of our public schools. In the past dozen years, the alleged wonders of Finland's schools have frequently been cited in order to heighten that sense of gloom.

Our domestic "achievement gaps" are often cited, heightening the gloom. Our journalists typically disappear one major reason why those achievement gaps persist—the large score gains which have been achieved by all population groups.

It isn't too much to say that people like the C-Span caller have been propagandized. We would say they've been systematically misled about a very basic question:

Where the Test Scores Are.

That C-Span caller has heard certain facts about our test scores, but many other basic facts have routinely been withheld. This helps define a second type of challenge we need to confront as a nation. That second type of challenge is a journalistic challenge. We'll define some constituent parts of that challenge tomorrow.

By the end of the week, we'll be taking a final look at the educational wonders of miraculous Finland. That C-Span caller has been propagandized, and misled, by articles like the one he saw featured on C-Span.

Please come to Boston? "Please stop going to Helsinki," some American singer should cry.

That C-Span caller has been misled by articles like that Smithsonian piece. By the end of the week, we think that point will be clear.

Tomorrow, we'll itemize a basic point about our journalistic challenge. We're going to itemize this point:

Where the con games are.

Tomorrow: Where the sleights-of-hand are


  1. I don't believe shorter school days, more play and less homework have been the formula for academic achievement in any country.

    1. Should we just go with your gut?

      What about dolphins, who have the highest brain to body mass ratio (humans are second), and have a 90-10 play to survival ratio for time spent?

    2. Formal learning is an unnatural act. Animals play to practice their survival skills. People need to practice deciphering and manipulating symbols in addition to play because these activities are not part of our natural environment and do not come naturally to us.

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  2. This explains all of the journalists begging for federal control over all of our public schools in this country. That's Finland's secret, right?

    1. People in Finland believe in more superstition, pseudoscience and fantastical gibberish than in the USA. Maybe that comes of all that play.

  3. Bob Somerby (hearts) recycling!

  4. Why do American blacks have low scores? One factor, I beleive, is that victim status has become more important than achievement in the liberal world. E.g., Trayvon Martin was a disturbed youngster. He'd been suspended from school 3 times. He was shot to death after he attacked a man who happened to be armed (according to the best evidence.) Martin is held up as an example. E.g., see http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/trayvon-martin-21-birthday/

    OTOH high-achieving blacks are often ignored. E.g, mathematician David Blackwell. Also, conservative high-achieving blacks are under-valued or even demonized by liberals. E.g, the Smithsonian's New African American Museum excluded Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, intellectual leader of the conservative pundocrocy, Thomas Sowell, and several other noted black conservatives.

    1. Why are you speculating about this instead of reading the abundant literature about this? No one cares about your personal theories, especially when you display your racist ignorance every time you spout one of them.

    2. You ask an astute - albeit naïve - question since he has no interest in going outside his wingnut/alt right bubble.

      He's merely recasting numbers 11, 12, & 19 of (Townhall) John Hawkin's 5-11-13 List of 25 Reasons to Dislike Liberals.

      My question to our resident sociopath: have you ever had an original thought?

    3. DinC, again, why do you continue to use proof by example? Actuary? Really?

  5. Here is Troll at 3:56 PM's hero in action:

    2 things P.O.S. Obama & his son have in common, self proclaimed "mixed race" and attacking Christians on US soil. pic.twitter.com/Yrn7a9ZYeA
    — George M. Zimmerman (@TherealGeorgeZ) October 2, 2015

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