July 3, 2008


Bad Rap on the Schools (Jay Mathews, Wilson Quarterly)

As even some of the experts who appear in Two Million Minutes note, the notion that the United States is losing the international economic race is implausible. China and India may be growing quickly, but they remain far behind and are weighed down by huge, impoverished rural populations. Both countries are going to continue to send many of their brightest young people to study at U.S. universities. Stupidly conceived and administered immigration laws give many of these foreign students little choice but to leave once they receive their degrees. Given the chance, many more are likely to stay in the United States, where the jobs pay better; creativity in all fields, including politics, is encouraged; and—another blow to education critics—the colleges their children would attend are far better and more ­accessible.

Most commentary on the subject leaves the impression that China and India are going to bury the United States in an avalanche of new technology. Consider, for example, a ­much-­cited 2005 Fortune article that included the claim that China turned out 600,000 engineers in the previous year, India graduated 350,000, and poor, declining America could manage only 70,000. The cover of Fortune showed a buff Chinese beach bully looming over a skinny Uncle Sam. The headline said, “Is the U.S. a 97-Pound Weakling?”

This argument be­came a favorite target for collectors of bad data, including Carl Bialik, The Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” educational psychologist and author Gerald W. Bracey, and a Duke University research team led by Vivek Wadhwa. The source of the China numbers seemed to be the China Statistical Yearbook, a Chinese government publication, which said that the country produced 644,000 engineering graduates in 2004. But a subsequent McKinsey Global Institute report said that about half of those “engineers” would be no more than technicians in the United States. Bialik could not find a source for the 350,000 Indian engineers, but National Science Foundation officials told him that the real number was unlikely to be anywhere near ­that.

In a 2005 report, the Duke researchers concluded that the United States produced 137,437 engineers with at least a bachelor’s degree in the most recent year, while India produced 112,000 and China 351,537. “That’s more U.S. degrees per million residents than in either other nation,” Bracey said in The Washington Post. Yet he found the discredited numbers still presented as fact by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez, and Senator John W. Warner (R.-Va.).

The Fortune article belongs to an emerging genre of news stories that raise hysterical alarms about the deficiencies of American education in international comparisons while completely overlooking the complexities involved in such studies.

In “More Than a Horse Race” (2007), Jim Hull, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Education, which is affiliated with the National School Boards Association, analyzed four major studies of school achievement around the world. When Hull looked carefully at the numbers, he found that the United States did much better than the headlines suggest. In reading, only three nations’ students did significantly better than their U.S. elementary and high school counterparts. “The reading performance of U.S. ­fourth ­graders was particularly strong,” Hull said. “They scored above the international level . . . while our 15-­year-­olds scored slightly above the average.” In science, fourth and ­eighth ­graders were above the international average, and only three countries did significantly better than the United States at the elementary school ­level. (It is worth noting that the studies Hull examined did not include India and China, in part because schooling is
so minimal for so many children in these two countries that their performance isn’t comparable.)

Hull also examined the frequent charge that American students fare well in international comparisons at earlier ages but fade as they enter their teen years. Some studies did show U.S. ­fourth ­graders doing relatively well, eighth graders about average, and high school students below average. But when the American Institutes of Research, a ­Washington-­based think tank, did a more careful, ­apples-­to-­apples comparison, making sure the students were actually at the same grade level, those differences ­disappeared.

Bracey has detected the precise flaws that warp international comparisons. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) of 1999, for instance, seemed to show that American high school students were far behind in advanced math. But the alarming news accounts that followed the study’s ­release—­and the politicians who echoed ­them—­failed to note an important caveat. A significant portion of the U.S. test takers, unlike the overseas students, had not yet gotten beyond ­pre­calculus. The U.S. TIMMS administrators included those students in their sample because, one told Bracey, “we just wanted to see how they’d do.” They had not concerned themselves with how the results might look in the newspapers. When the TIMMS experts later ­re­analyzed the data, comparing overseas students only to American high schoolers who had taken Advanced Placement calculus, the United States did much better. That news, however, wasn’t widely ­reported.

Bracey found other differences that distorted international comparisons. In Europe, many teenagers who hold jobs are tracked into nonacademic schools, but American youngsters commonly combine traditional school and work. Bracey noticed that 55 percent of the Americans tested in the TIMMS study reported working more than 20 hours a week, the point at which, research shows, after­school jobs begin to hurt academic performance. Few European students seem to devote as much time to after-school jobs. In Sweden, the only country for which Bracey found hard data, only 16 percent of students worked more than 20 hours per ­week.

There is, in any event, scant evidence that test scores have much to do with national economic performance. In the late 1980s, when Japan still seemed on its way to becoming the world’s economic superpower, U.S. newspapers published glowing stories about the lofty test scores achieved by Japanese students and suggested that failures of American public education had helped bring on bad times in the United States. By 1998, despite the lack of any significant change in math and reading scores, the U.S. economy was back on top. The Japanese still had good schools, but the bottom had dropped out of their economy (which still hasn’t fully recovered). No ­story.

Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, analyzed the disconnect between test scores and economic growth in a column reprinted in his 2001 book, Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong. Samuelson told of the computer guru at Newsweek’s Washington bureau who had an English degree but found, through a series of jobs that taught him new skills, that he had become a technological expert indispensable to Samuelson and his colleagues. “People don’t learn only at school,” Samuelson concluded. “If they did, we’d be doomed. In isolation, test scores hardly count. What ­counts—­for the economy, at ­least—­is what people do at work. . . . On the job, people learn from supervisors, mentors, ­co­workers, customers ­and—­most ­important—­experience. One Labor Department study estimates that about 70 percent of training in the workplace is informal. Culturally, this is America’s strong suit.” What keeps the American economy so productive, Samuelson said, is its flexibility. American companies “have more freedom to set pay rates, hire and fire, and alter work practices.”

Other countries have job training too. The Germans are praised for bringing teenagers to a technical level that makes them valuable in the workplace right after high school. But the U.S. system excels all others in allowing enough freedom for people to flounder and fail and change jobs until they find the niche where their talents are put to best use. It’s disorderly and unbusinesslike, but it works.

American schools have the same ability to innovate on the run, even if not as freely as one might wish, and foreign educators have begun to realize that they may have something to learn from them. Some U.S. schools now regularly host visiting educators from China, Singapore, and Japan, who want to know how American teachers are able to produce such creative students. They have noticed that American schools produce Nobel Prize winners, and theirs don’t. The Chinese have been particularly impressed by the fact that every Nobel laureate of Chinese descent was educated outside ­China.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 3, 2008 8:34 AM

“People don’t learn only at school,” Samuelson concluded. “If they did, we’d be doomed.

That is an exceedingly accurate statement.

The article points out nothing more than the fact that our nation succeeds in spite of our awful (and obscenely expensive) schools, not because of them.

We look at the high achievers and ignore the fact that many are "educated" outside the class room (tutors, high socio-econ status, caring parents)

The cost (in terms of human potential and financial) of our system is immense, and approaching unsustainability.

The fortunate get a mediocre education at far too high a cost, and the lower middle class and poor get the shaft.

Are you on the NEA payroll now OJ? All that white suburban support of schools is EXACTLY what is preventing choice from coming to the inner-city. Of course, if true choice came to the suburbs, the high price and mediocrity of suburban schools would rapidly be exposed.

PTA/PTO/NEA say - dingbat soccer mom do.

Posted by: Bruno at July 3, 2008 9:31 AM

It is articles like this, and beliefs like Bruno's, that make me think my home state of South Dakota treats education the right way: As just another mouth to feed.

Despite being constantly told how much of an injustice it is that SoDak's teacher pay is dead last, despite not having any choice in public schools beyond option enrollment to a neighboring district, and despite having very few private schools beyond Catholic schools, South Dakota's youth do just fine in the global economy. And South Dakota, despite sending (as a percentage) more of its youth to the Armed Services than any other state, and despite seeing nearly 70% of its college graduates leave the state to find work, has been growing its economy at a greater percentage than US GDP for nearly all this decade.

Posted by: Brad S at July 3, 2008 12:03 PM

Bingo! The reason we don't fix the few failing minority schools is because the rest of our kids get good educations. If education weren't good we'd change it.

Posted by: oj at July 3, 2008 2:33 PM

Poo Poo!

White suburban kids get a barely adequate education for far too high a price, but bucking the entrenched dogma of support for public schools is too high a price to pay. (We may not get invited to BBQs if we are vocal about it)

Every child in America could receive a great education for about 1/2 to 2/3rds of the current per child cost, but changing the system is too discomforting.

I too might loll around in my comfort zone if I lived in SD or NH - two states not yet eaten alive by the cancer that is the public education lobby.

Keep tilling the earth of your idyllic little Shires. The cancer that has taken NJ, IL, NY, CA, etc. is coming your way.

Sad that the 3 of us probably agree on school choice (the only cure for the cancer), but only one of us is actually fighting for it.

Posted by: Bruno at July 4, 2008 11:02 AM

One last thought occurs to me.

Even if, in the final analysis, your view (OJ & Brad) wins the day, don't we/you have some sort of duty to improve the lot of the poorer and rural youths so poorly served by the education monopoly?

If we have the power to change things for the better, and we don't, have we done all that we could to make the world a better place?

I ask this because I've been following the "education wars" for quite some time, and the strategy of the now fat and bureaucratized "Think Tanks" has been to focus on the organizing and empowering blacks to seek choice.

It isn't working, and based upon the excellent political analysis on this blog, likely won't. As Mrs. Wisdom points out, "Comfortable people don't change."

We all know that for choice to become a reality, it will have to gain the support of the suburban vote, and under the current paradigm there are only two way that can occur.

1. Appeal to "white guilt". Give the poor blacks better schools. My view is that this is unlikely to work because the vile teacher's unions argue that this will hurt their own children, and - as you point out - the selfish sons & daughters-of-bi--hes will vote that down.

2. Undermine support for the education monopoly by appealing to facts & reason, that a) Teachers unions are corrupt, and lie through their teeth, and 2) that THEIR white suburban kids could have just as good (or better) an education for less money. (an increasingly good political argument with falling RE values and increasing RE taxes)

I submit to you that my strategy is both more effective in getting choice, and also the more moral of the two strategies.

If it is moral and correct to foot the bill (in lives and money) to free Iraq (and it is), then isn't it moral to a) undermine support for a corrupt monopoly, b) procure better education for the poor (AND the rest, IMO)...

...all for the "cost" of lower taxes, less bureaucracy, and a few years of not getting along with your morally and intellectually fat, lazy, bought off, unconscious and comfortable neighbors?

Even if you find your schools adequate, I'm still right.

Posted by: Bruno at July 4, 2008 11:25 AM

No. It's a democracy. You can't make the vast majority do what they won't.

Posted by: oj at July 4, 2008 11:56 AM

A few more facts worth pondering:

1- The US Trade DEFICIT with China now exceeds $1.5 Trillion, with the US on track to buy over $300 billion more Goods from China this year than we sell to China.

2- The US has not had a positive Balance of Trade with China since Mao Zedong was alive.

3- The US Trade DEFICIT with India is $102 Billion and has been negative for the past 15 years.

4- The Chinese Government is the second largest lender to the US Government - holding $150 Billion of US Treasury securities.

5- College graduates from Tsinghua and Peking universities earn more PhD's from US univesities than any other colleges in the world. (Berkeley graduates are 5th)

6- Try passing a simplified version of the 10th grade Indian proficiency test at www.2mminutes.com. It should be easy for Americans - this is the test rural Indian kids have to pass to get to 11th grade.

Bob Compton
Executive Producer
Two Million Minutes

Posted by: Bob Compton at July 18, 2008 1:23 PM

Here are some facts. The third/emerging world got a pass from the enviros, so they can pollute the air, the water and whatever else they like without penalty.

They now function as our unskilled labor pool. We tell them what we want and how much we'll pay for it and they make it to our specifications tons cheaper than we can make ourselves. Then they take that money and invest it here.

When an area gets sufficiently prosperous, they can move on to the next economic level and we'll move on to an even poorer part of the world. BTW - they got poor and poorer due to the socialism stuffed down their throats by do-gooders.

Eventually we'll run our of really poor people to raise up and then we'll think of something else.

It's really that simple.

Posted by: erp at July 18, 2008 3:07 PM

They're this week's Japan.

Posted by: oj at July 18, 2008 4:39 PM
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