"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Preempting Duncan's Prevarications

Duncan will be testifying before Congress tomorrow, no doubt repeating the same dog-eared sheaf of lies and exaggerations that the minions of the oligarchs, Gates and Broad, have handed him to read. It would be too much to ask, I suppose, that Dunc do some homework tonight by reading yesterday's story by the AP's Libby Quaid, whom I owe an apology for assuming that she was continuing in the tradition of former AP ed writer and lapdog of Margaret Spellings, Ben Feller. Ms. Quaid, I apologize, humbly.

So let me recommend Quaid's piece to anyone not on the Gates/Broad Christmas list, along with another piece that was posted by Dr. Bracey at Huffington Post on May 12. Together they will help neutralize the poison that Obama and Duncan, WaPo and the NY Times, have continued to pour into the education mix, even after Bush has moved to his own undisclosed location to await indictment for war crimes.

Some clips, first from Libby Quaid:
. . . .Here is a look at recent statements about the standing of the U.S. educational system and how they square with the facts.
Obama says the rest of the developed world is passing America by. "Our schools continue to trail other developed countries and, in some cases, developing countries," he told the National Academy of Sciences on April 27. "Our students are outperformed in math and science by their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Korea, among others."

That is not the whole story.

The U.S. does trail the most high-achieving countries, mostly developed nations in Asia such as Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

But the U.S. holds its own in the group that comes next, a group of developed countries that, depending on the test, includes England, Germany and Russia.

In fact, the U.S. has gained on some of its toughest competitors since 1995, making bigger strides in math than Singapore and Japan, and in science than Japan.

That is according to the most recent international tests, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, the study Obama was citing. A lead TIMSS researcher took issue with the idea the U.S. is trailing.

"Certainly, our results do not show the United States trailing the developed world by any stretch of the imagination," said Ina V.S. Mullis, a Boston College research professor and co-director of the study.

"The Asian countries are way ahead of the rest of developed countries, but mostly the developed countries are relatively similar," Mullis said. "And the United States might be one of the leaders of that group, depending on whether you're talking about math or science in the fourth- or the eighth-grade."
Obama also delivered this dismal news: "Another assessment shows American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world."

Bill Gates Sr., co-chairman and trustee of his son's Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, used similar figures in a National Public Radio interview last month when he said, "The condition of our public education is very, very poor."

At issue is the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which is given to 15-year-olds in 30 developed countries.

Obama's numbers are correct, but perhaps misleading. PISA is not designed to measure what children have learned in school. Instead, it measures how well kids apply math to real-world problems, which could be learned in school, but also at home or elsewhere.

In contrast, the other test Obama cited, TIMSS, is designed to measure how much math children have learned in school.

Because of that difference—a big one in the world of educational research—experts including the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless have cautioned against lumping PISA results together with other test scores. Loveless serves on the U.S. advisory board for PISA and is a representative to the group that administers TIMSS.
Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, says American kids don't spend enough time in school.

"Our children are competing for jobs against children in India and China today, and those children are going to school 25, 30 percent more than us," Duncan said at Brookings this past week.

Obama himself said in March: "Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea every year. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America."
The president is in luck: The U.S. already is doing it.

South Koreans do have a longer school year, measured in days. But Americans actually spend more time in school. The average U.S. eighth-grader has 1,146 instructional hours a year, compared with 923 hours a year in South Korea.

In fact, the U.S. has more instructional hours than many better-performing countries, though that raises a separate question about how well American schools spend classroom time.

A longer school year would shorten summer vacation and perhaps minimize the summer learning loss that hurts struggling students. Duncan is urging school districts to consider a longer year.

The school-time data come from the Education Department, which relied on information from the group that administers TIMSS.

As for Duncan's comparison, the department says there isn't reliable data on how much time Chinese or Indian children spend in school.
Helping more students finish college is a priority among the many philanthropies that work on education issues. In a December speech at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the younger Gates said the U.S. problem is acute.

"In the case of college education, we were No. 1 in the world 20 years ago in the percentage of young adults with a postsecondary credential. Now we're number 10 and dropping," Gates said.

Obama said this in March: "In just a single generation, America has fallen from second place to 11th place in the portion of students completing college. That is unfortunate, but it's by no means irreversible."

The college figures come from various tables provided by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the PISA test of 15-year-olds.

But those figures are misleading for several reasons, said Cliff Adelman, a former Education Department researcher now at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

—They are based on entire populations, not on what actually happens to students who enter college in a given year. Graduation rates in a large, growing country such as the U.S. will not look as good as those of a smaller country whose population is declining.

—Countries have different definitions for who is counted; for example, some exclude noncitizens, while the U.S. includes them.

—Since 2000, many European countries have switched to three-year degrees from four-to-six year degrees, making their rates look better than before.

What about high school? There again, international comparisons present similar problems. Other countries have more complex systems with many different types of high schools and can limit who is admitted.

No one disputes that the U.S. high school dropout rate, 1 in 4 kids and worse among minorities, is awful.
But as with other international comparisons, measuring the U.S. against the rest of the world is like comparing apples and oranges.
And now, from Bracey:

I have not the expertise to address the merits of President Obama's speech to Congress on the issues of the economy. I do claim some expertise on education. He blew it.

He accepted the same garbage that the propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Craig Barrett and many others--God help us, Arne Duncan?--have been spewing for years.

Obama said, ""Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education. Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a favorite of ex secretary of education of education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can all express a sigh of relief that the operative word is, "ex."

If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on job projections, it is almost true (but not really) that what Obama said is right. But there are two hugely compromising factors that make this statistic much less fearsome that it first appears:

1. The definition of "more than a high school diploma" is a weasel phrase, an incredibly slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A., an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-the-job training. The BLS projects that the overwhelming majority of jobs to be created between now and 2016 will require "short term on the job training." That's one week to three months.

2. The "fastest-growing occupations" account for very few jobs. For every systems engineer, we need about 15 sales people on the floor at Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields). The huge job numbers in this country are accounted for by retail sales, janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk who come to take care those of us who are getting up in years), and similar low-trained, low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say these people are "low-skilled." As Barbara Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years working in "low-skilled" jobs, there really is no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).

"We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of our students who begin college never finish."

Because test scores no longer work to prove American school failure, the statistic of choice to prove what a lousy job we're doing is the graduation rate. How dare those European and Asian nations have the audacity to recover from World War II! The dropout rates across nations are, so far as I can tell, incomparable, since secondary school programs in other nations range from two to five years. In other nations, once students finish the equivalent of 8th grade, they are tracked into vocational, technical or precollege programs whereas American students go to comprehensive high schools (although, as we all know, there is plenty of informal tracking within those).

Many people do not complete college for many reasons. One of my major regrets as a researcher is a failure to follow up, in the late 60's, on groups of students who failed to complete their education at Temple University, a center city school in Philadelphia vs. those who finished on time--at the time restrictions to access to personal data were much freer. The standout statistic in the data I looked at was that the SAT scores of those who finished in four years was only infinitesimally higher than those who had dropped out or been dismissed for academic reasons.

I also don't know much about college completion rates in Europe, but do know that you can hang around as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris forever. Incidentally, you want a riot in Europe? Try imposing college tuition.

The World Economic Forum, and the Institute for Management Development, two Swiss think tanks, rate the U. S. as the most globally competitive nation in the world, IMD using 50+ nations, WEF, 135. What things will look like when their new rankings emerge from the current catastrophe this fall is hard to say. But looking at tests, high-scoring Iceland is an economic basket case. High-scoring France is on strike. And even higher-scoring Japan, the idol that "A Nation At Risk" prostrated itself to in 1983 because its test scores surely ensured economic prosperity, endured a "lost decade" of recession starting around 1990 and, in 2007 was in recession once again. Japan's students still ace tests.

When will we ever learn?

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