The problem is poverty: Response to a Thomas Donlan Barron's online editorial, In Search of Excellence,
Not submitted to Barron's or to the Barron's website, which are only open to Barron's subscribers.
Article at: http://online.barrons.com/article/SB50001424052970203954104576192920446679248.html?mod=BOL_twm_fs
Thomas Donlan thinks that we need a national education system." As evidence, he notes that American students are only "mid-range" on international tests, and that some states do better than others.
Wrong. The problem is poverty and the solution, until we achieve full employment, is to protect children against the effects of poverty.
Our international test scores are mid-range only because we have so much poverty: The US has over 20 percent child poverty, the most of any industrialized country. In contrast, high-scoring Finland has less than 4 percent.
The difference in achievement among states is largely because of poverty. The correlation between the percentage of children in poverty and grade 4 2009 reading NAEP scores is high (r = .52). As Donlan notes, Massachusetts is a high-scoring state: Their NAEP reading score was the highest in the US. But Massachusetts also has one of the lowest rates of child poverty.
Poverty means hunger, malnutrition, lack of medical care, and little access to books, and studies have shown that all of these are related to school achievement. (Krashen, 1999, Martin, 2004, Berliner, 2009).
Research shows that middle-class American children in well-funded schools, who don't have these barriers, score at the top of the world (Payne and Biddle, 1999; Bracey, 2009; Berliner, in press).
Instituting a national system of education is not the solution. The solution making sure all children have adequate food (as Susan Ohanian puts it,"no child left unfed"), medical care, and access to good school and public libraries.
American students in well-funded schools …
Berliner, D. The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism,
Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., & Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. In press.
Bracey, G. 2009. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. Educational Research Service
Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics
achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.
Poverty and hunger, health and access to books:
Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. http://epicpolicy.org/publication/poverty-and-potential
Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership 55(4): 18-22.
Martin, M. 2004. A strange ignorance: The role of lead poisoning in “failing schools.” http://www.azsba.org/lead.htm.
In Search of Excellence
There is no national education system.
The nation's most prestigious high-school science fair opened in Washington Thursday, displaying the work of 40 of the best students in the country. The Society for Science and the Public, a nonprofit organization, has operated the Science Talent Search since 1942. Participants during these 70 years have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, two Field Prizes in mathematics, 11 MacArthur Foundation fellowships, and a slew of other honors.
Intel reckons that the company and the foundation have put more than $1 billion toward improving education. One expenditure this year will be $630,000 in prizes for the winners of the Science Talent Search—about triple the amount awarded in 1998. Intel sponsors other events for student scientists; it makes grants to schools and education programs; and everyone at Intel, from CEO Paul Otellini on down, talks up education.
The company calls this an investment, not because there's a direct financial return that an accountant could measure, but because the company's future depends on a continuing supply of talented scientists and engineers.
The Best and the Worst
The first day of the Science Talent Search was also the day that Education Secretary Arne Duncan hit the front page of the local paper with an announcement that most schools in the U.S. are falling behind the standards set by the No Child Left Behind law passed in 2001 as a joint effort of former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Duncan said that as many as 82% of U.S. schools are not making what the act calls "adequate yearly progress" toward the act's goal that all students should attain "proficient" scores on math and reading tests by 2014.
"The law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail, and very few ways to help them succeed," Duncan told a congressional committee. "We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures, and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk."
It was hard to tell what he really meant. Some said he was proposing to lower standards, because some schools really are failures, and deserve to be labeled as such in hopes that local officials will force them to improve. Others said Duncan was protecting schools that have been excellent all along and can't make much more progress.
Either way, the U.S. is no better than mid-range among the developed nations of the world in the quality of its national education system, according to numerous studies. Going back to the 1983 report produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education and titled "A Nation at Risk," experts have been trying to take the U.S. school system to the principal's office for a little discipline.
But one reason for the modest national score is that the U.S. does not have a national education system. If the 50 U.S. states were countries, some states would score high on international tests and some would score poorly. If Massachusetts were a country, it would be a high performer. Moreover, most states do not have statewide education systems, just statewide testing. If Fairfax County, Va., were a country, it would be a high performer.
This is how the U.S. produces world-class students like those in the Intel Science Talent Search from a system that many call a national disgrace. Like U.S. health care, it has centers of excellence, even excellence with low costs, and centers of high cost and low outcomes.
U.S. educators and politicians have spent billions of dollars and class hours trying to be sure that no child is left behind. It's a worthy goal, but a difficult one. Not even in Lake Woebegone are all children above average in ability. Nor do they all work as hard as those who have a "tiger mother."
There could be thousands of students with outstanding talent for science and math who never show it and never know what they are missing. If nobody makes them take algebra, they will never know if they can do calculus.
Intel can point with pride to its investment in education, and its investment in prizes for a few of these 40 students, but they all deserve much more—not from Intel, which is doing its share, but from other corporations and the nation that will benefit from their ability,
Show Them the Money
If major universities from the Ivy League to the Pac-10 gave as many free-ride scholarships to highly qualified students as they give to highly qualified basketball and football players, there might be more kids spending hours in labs and libraries instead of on the playing fields. If donors and alumni cared as much for the country as they do about March Madness, they would support academic excellence.
If government gave as much student aid to those of high ability as it does to those with great need, there might be fewer bright students left behind in school and more tiger mothers and fathers pushing their children to excel in academics.
The payoff for a national scholarship program for talented students would be years in coming. But Intel's Otellini made the stakes very clear in a speech last year: "Unless government and business take firm actions to improve education [and] create a culture of investment and job creation in this country...the next Intel or the next big thing will not be invented here. Jobs will not be created here. And wealth will not accrue here. Ultimately, we will face an inevitable erosion and shift of wealth, much like we are witnessing today in Europe."