American Public Schools Versus The World
Many times, I’ve read or seen or heard comparisons between America’s public schools and a few other education systems. Comparing America’s public schools to other countries, private schools, and charter schools are the most common things I’ve seen, though comparisons to homeschooling are on the rise.
I do not believe the public school system infallible. A quick glance around this site will tell you that, so this is not a defense of the system. Instead, it’s an attack on the warped logic that arrives at conclusions through unfair comparison. Comparing apples to oranges – public schools to schools elsewhere, private schools, or charter schools – is no way to arrive at a judgment of the apple or the orange.
Too Many Variables
It’s taken me a while to get around to writing about this, but John Stossel, an ABC news correspondent who frequently fixes his journalistic gun on public education, put together a January 2006 20/20 piece called “Stupid In America.” American public schools compared to schools in Belgium provides an interesting view on things, but in no way gives us much meaningful information other than to support Mark Twain’s stance that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Do students in Belgium perform better in school because of, well, better schools? Are the teachers better prepared? Do their national standards motivate students to prepare for life after academics? Could it be the food they eat? The national history? The parental involvement? The amount of money spent per pupil? A greater national conscience about education? A more literate society? Is there less social mobility? More vocational programs? Fear of corporal punishment? Lax laws on child abuse? Mandatory preschool?
The number of variables in such a comparison staggers the mind. But it’s the job of someone reporting on the topic to consider such issues and report back the findings. Stossel, and others of a similar ilk, don’t even begin to take into account the other differences that may cause the increased performance of Belgian students. Or, if they do, they certainly aren’t transparent about such concerns. They automatically jump to the conclusion that it’s a problem with the way the students were schooled. No discussion of the other possibilities that may influence performance on an international test. Maybe the Belgian students weren’t smart enough to realize that the silly international test was a waste of their time and not worth being one more thing to worry about. Wouldn’t American students be smarter for realizing that? By setting their priorities, wouldn’t that be a demonstration of a skill needed to survive in the world outside academics? Don’t we want to encourage minds that take into account consequences and weigh decisions? And where did this international test come from, anyhow?
International Test? Since When?
Invariably, in this kind of comparison, there’s mention of some kind of international test given to students in both countries; that test dances before me every time I hear of this comparison, but never does outside that context. I’m beginning to think it’s just a rhetorical device to add credibility to the argument. It’s not a test our teachers or students know about. Ask around. SAT? ACT? CAT-6? CST? STAR? CAHSEE? EPT? ELM? Formerly-known-as-Subject-A? Regents exams? I’ve heard of all of those and many more. But an international assessment?
I’ve been a public school teacher for 8 years now and I’ve never heard of any kind of international test. Not a preliminary one, not a limited one, not even parts of one, which is what Stossel administers to some New Jersey and Belgian students as a way of extrapolating information for entire countries.
This international test certainly isn’t being administered at my school and it’s not something we focus on in professional development meetings. I’ve never heard it mentioned during any meetings at the district office and I’ve yet to see a workshop provided by the County Office of Education on how to get our students ready for an international assessment. Have I really just not been paying attention?
Does that international test even attempt to assess the education standards in the different states? With no national curriculum in America, how can we be sure that this international test isn’t biased toward a certain state’s educational standards or even those of a certain country? If I am a high school teacher and am held accountable to some kind of international test, why is it hidden? Why don’t we have that test at the ready as we write state standards? Why isn’t there a table of specifications for that test, laying out what standard each test item is supposed to assess?
What Does This Show Us?
The crux of Stossel’s suggestion is that public schools in America need competition in order to improve, operating on the thinking that schools are just like businesses. Once again, this is a ridiculous comparison that is simply not fair for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that schools are almost the complete opposite of businesses.
It may very well be that competition will cause public school performance to improve, but it’s not for the same reason as businesses improve due to competition. I’d suggest it would be because competition may serve to narrow the purpose of schools; right now, public schools have to be everything to everybody. That never works. Competition may result in more focused schools, able to concentrate on the needs of their constituents more directly.
There is a piece of Stossel’s claim, though, that should be taken into consideration. Public schools have been pretty much the only option for decades and perhaps it is time to change that. Maybe it’s the structure of public schools that needs to change. The way public schools are run today should not be the same as they were run 100 years ago. Too often, that is the case.
Is it possible that students in Belgium receive a better education than students in America? Yes and we need to be concerned about that on some level. But how on earth can we actually limit the variables down to something manageable to show that to be true? How can we expect students to perform to the best of their ability when a handful are selected to stand in for the entire country and are given a test for which they’ve never been prepared?
C’mon, Stossel. Give Me A Break.