16 January 2014

Is the U.S. Leading or Trailing the World in Education?

Is the United States leading or trailing the world in education? Unsurprisingly, it all depends on how you measure. And if we emphasize the wrong factor, we risk losing important qualities of the existing educational system.
2012 PISA Rankings
for Mathematics

First, the bad news. The results of the 2012 PISA tests were released in early December 2013. The United States ranks 26th in math and is below the OECD average in all three tested areas: Mathematics, Reading and Science. So, the common narrative that U.S. education trails the economically-developed world seems to be supported.

But if that's the case, how then does the U.S. rank 6th in per-capita GDP, 5th in Global Competitiveness and 2nd in Global Creativity?
Could it be that the U.S. economy is simply coasting based on a previous lead? That doesn't appear to be the case. Previous studies show that the U.S. trailed other industrialized countries in Mathematics, Science and Reading in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s. In fact, U.S. rankings relative to other countries have improved somewhat over the last 50 years. It would seem that the U.S. advantage leverages factors not captured by these test scores.

TIMSS is an international test of Mathematics and Science proficiency. In addition to measuring students' mathematical skills it also surveys their attitudes toward mathematics. Yong Zhao, an articulate critic of factory-model education, has drawn some interesting information out of the TIMSS results:

CountryMath ScoresConfidence %
(4th Grade)
Value Math %
Korea61303 (11)14
Singapore61114 (21)43
Chinese Taipei60907 (20)13
Hong Kong58607 (24)26
Japan57002 (09)13
United States50924 (40)51
England50716 (33)48
Australia50517 (38)46

Among countries, there's an inverse relationship between achieving high math scores and either valuing or having confidence in the use of math. Not visible in the table is that the TIMMS results also show that within countries, higher math achievement does correlate with greater confidence and with valuing mathematics. So, while higher skill in math results in greater confidence on an individual level, countrywide programs that result in high math scores do not result in high mathematical confidence or a sense of the value of mathematics.

It also suggests that development of mathematical skill must be combined with gaining confidence in applying mathematics and a sense of the value of mathematics. Mathematical skill alone is not sufficient to develop Numeracy.

Zhao concludes his analysis by pointing out that Confidence, Creativity and Entrepreneurship are key skills that drive U.S. economic leadership. An excessive emphasis on rote learning and test scores, what he calls an "employee-oriented" education, tends to suppress the more "entrepreneur-oriented" skills that are in demand for the 21st century. Rather than praise U.S. education for developing those skills, he simply says that U.S. education "is much less successful in stifling creativity and suppressing entrepreneurship."

I join Zhao and many others in decrying the factory model of education. We can do a lot better than simply "less bad." Our schools should foster more creativity and offer more personalized learning experiences. They should be places where it's safe to fail – especially when taking on a big challenge. And schools should encourage students to pursue studies in individual areas of interest.

Strangely enough, standards and even standardized testing can help with this but only when used properly. I'll elaborate on how that might be accomplished in my next post.

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