Whether or not Ravitch is correct about the validity or significance of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and other international student assessments, and she may well be, it is still embarrassing when we argue that the test itself was biased, unfair, or otherwise flawed whenever the results do not suit us.
The most important thing we need to learn from PISA is something that no one seems to recognize or acknowledge. The very existence of PISA and its assessment process signals a desire on the part of other nations to demonstrate that they can compete.
Dr. Ravitch may also be correct that we have no significant enemies that threaten to conquer us. What we do have, however, is a growing number of significant challengers in the “competition” that we know as the world marketplace. These nations are committed to competing with us economically and even surpassing us as the preeminent economic power. There is little evidence to show that we take this competition seriously. Most Americans seem to feel that we are somehow invulnerable to such challenges.
We need to remind every American citizen that our nation did not acquire its status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world as a birthright and we cannot sustain it because we feel entitled. That status was achieved because we had the best educated and the most productive workforce in the world. As we speak, other nations are working hard to change that reality and we need to be cognizant of the zeal of their efforts and commitment.
Competition is a bad thing only for those people who are unprepared or unable to compete. In the case of the U.S., it has been a long time since we have been sufficiently challenged that we have felt any need to work hard to sustain our advantage. That reality has been and is being altered irrevocably and we must respond. It is imperative that we view this challenge not as a threat but rather as an opportunity to expand our limits and raise our expectations.
Whatever one’s opinion about PISA, it is only one small piece of a growing body of evidence that the American education system is in crisis and that our national well-being is at risk. It is ironic that the only people who seem to recognize the risks are people who have no clue what to about it while the people who have the expertise to address the problems of American public education seem to be in denial and are more focused on defending their profession.
Far more important to us than PISA, the other evidence seems, to this writer, compelling and overwhelming:
1) According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results show that only 40 percent of American eighth graders are “proficient or above” in math. The achievement levels that have been defined by NAEP are “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.” (The reader is referred to the May 13th segment of our chapter by chapter review of Reign of Error, explaining why we reject Dr. Ravitch’s assertion that the benchmark should “basic or above” in favor of the far higher threshold of “Proficient or above.”) Our nation’s NAEP results for eighth grade reading, science, and writing were 31, 30, and 33 percent respectively. I don’t see how anyone can feel good about the fact that only 30 to 40 out of every 100 children have developed sufficient mastery of the subject matter to be able to apply what they have learned to real-world situations.
2) The performance gap between white and minority students, whether measured by NAEP or state competency exams, clearly indicates that the educational needs of minority children are not being effectively addressed in American public schools. Saying we have closed the gap a few percentage points over the past decade does not even approach acceptable. NAEP results show that 44 percent of white kids scored a Proficient or better compared to only about 15 percent of African-American students and 20 percent of Hispanics. This is an untenable situation and we dare not rest until we have altered this reality.
3) Employers throughout the U.S. are frustrated that young people entering the work force are poorly prepared to do the jobs for which they are being hired. (See the May 19th column by Paul Wyche of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette headlined: “The Young and Unreliable: Millennials’ work ethic appalls employers, who can’t find skilled help”) As a result, employers must incur significant costs to assess and provide remedial training for huge numbers of new hires.
4) The frustration in public school classrooms in communities throughout the U.S., on the part of teachers who must devote significant time and energy to maintain order – the lack of which deters millions of other students from taking full advantage of their opportunity for a quality education.
5) The burgeoning population of American parents who have lost hope and faith in the American Dream and no longer view an education as a ticket to a better life for their children.
The author’s personal experience as an ASVAB test administrator for the Department of Defense validates the existence of a crisis in education. Let there be no doubt that the military service will be only one of many doors of opportunity to close on young men and women unable to meet minimum eligibility requirements for enlistment in the Armed Services of the U.S.
Ravitch offers an eloquent argument for rejecting the focus on standardized testing, whether international student assessments or state competency exams, and preserving the educational traditions that contributed the U.S.’s rise to the top.
Yes, what we have been doing has brought us to where we are today but that does not mean it will take us where we need to go from here. Let us not forget that this same educational process that has gotten us where we are today also gave us a performance gap that is staggering in its scope and will continue to have crippling consequences.
And, NO, we cannot blame that all on poverty. One of our great weaknesses is our inability to step far enough back that we are able to see how our educational process contributes to the failure of so many of our children. It is a process that both contributes to and exacerbates the problems of poverty. These things are both interdependent and symbiotic.
One of the great misfortunes of the current corporate reform movement with its focus on privatization, choice, standards, testing, and accountability is that it distracts us from what should be our real mission. Our professional educators, justifiably or not, have chosen to slip into a defensive mode rather than use their experience and wisdom to evaluate and address the weaknesses of our current and obsolete educational process.
Quoting Yong Zhao, a Chinese born professor at the University of Oregon, Ravitch brings us to the crossroads but then sends us down the wrong path. Ravitch quotes Zhao, “that China wants to transform itself from ‘a labor-intensive, low-level manufacturing economy into an innovation-driven knowledge society. . . . Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students who excel at regurgitating spoon-fed knowledge. Zhao then writes, “If China, a developing country aspiring to move into an innovative society, has been working to emulate U.S. education, why does America want to abandon it.”
China seems to be beating us to the logical leap to where we should already be as illustrated by Valerie Strauss’ report in the May 26th issue of the Washington Post, “No. 1 Shanghai may drop out of PISA.”
Quoting Yi Houqin, an official of the Shanghai Education Commission the article shares that they are no longer interested in a focus on standardized testing. “What it [China] needs are schools that follow sound educational principles . . . and lay a solid foundation for students’ lifelong development.”
If anything should alarm American leaders, this shift in direction on the part of China’s educational leaders, should.
In the U.S., we tell ourselves that this is what we are about but our actions speak the truth. We say we want to develop the individuality of students and teach them to think and to explore but the way we structure the process is to ask all students to rush down the same path on the same schedule. Our educational process (not our schools or teachers) is focused on grading rather than learning; on failure rather than success.
If our objective is that kids learn something, why do we grade and then record their unsuccessful attempts. All those mistakes on practice worksheets and failed quizzes do is tell us that the child has not yet learned and is not ready to move on. So what do we do? We grade the worksheet or quiz, record the “C,” “D,” or “F” and move them along to the next lesson, module, grading period, semester or grade. What those practice worksheets and quizzes are really telling us is that our job on that particular lesson with that specific child is not yet completed.
Our real issue with testing, standardized or otherwise, should be on the purpose for which the test is designed to serve. Testing should always be, first, diagnostic: asking the question what has the child learned and how prepared are they for future; or, second, documentary: has the child mastered the lessons that we have striven to teach them? How they rank in comparison to other students is no more consequential than how the U.S. ranks compared to China or other nations on PISA assessments.
We come back to the only question that matters. How far has the child progressed; what are his or her strengths and weaknesses; and, where do we go from here.
The nation that is the world leader in economic performance will be the nation with the best educated workforce, with the best work ethic, and with the highest level of productivity. Economic laws and principles care nothing about the political, racial, or ethnic make-up of the population, only about what a people can accomplish.
We have already experienced, as a nation, what it is like to lose huge chunks of low-paying jobs to China, Mexico, and parts elsewhere. Imagine the consequences if we begin to lose chunks of our highest paying jobs for skilled or professional workers.
Imagine the impact if the average American household income was to drop by 10, 20, or even 30 percent. As earned income shrinks, how do we continue to bear the cost of the millions of baby boomers who are withdrawing from the workforce and can be expected to live until they are in their 80s and 90s. How do we continue to bear the cost of the growing population of Americans who are under-employed, unemployed, and unemployable when fewer people are working for fewer and fewer dollars.
If we want to get a different outcome we must begin doing things differently. Sadly, the opportunity cost is staggering when the powerful platform of Diane Ravitch is distracted from the real issues.
international student assessments, PISA, American education system, American public education, public education, NAEP, Reign of Error, performance gap between white and minority students, performance gap, American public schools, public schools, standardized testing, educational process,