When people in the US talk about how to improve education, there is an underlying assumption that the way our education system works, overall, is ‘normal.’ When the struggles of schools in low-income communities are addressed, poverty is generally identified as the culprit. But after a year of research, and another year of traveling to excellent schools around the world, I can confidently say that there is nothing ‘normal’ about the education system in the US and that our reaction to students in poverty does as much to impact their potential than the poverty itself.
The five realities below are all rooted in data and they show that fundamental shifts are needed if our education system is to start preparing our children and supporting our teachers in the ways they deserve.
Reality #1 – U.S. Students Don’t Like School and Aren’t Very Good At It
This chart was created with the OECD’s PISA test data by Jake Levy, a data analyst at Buzzfeed. The scores are an average of math, science and reading. The x-axis is how students respond to the question, ’Are you happy in school?’ Economists have found a direct link between PISA scores and GDP growth and PISA scores have also proven a more accurate predictor of whether or not students will go to college than report cards. (Source: Amanda Ripley’s reporting in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way)
As you can see, the United States falls into the ‘sad and stupid’ quadrant. Not only does our system fail to educate our children, but in the process, it turns them away from the idea that learning can be fun. Great. Why aren’t people unnerved about this? Are we, as a nation, resigned to ironic acceptance of our educational inferiority?
Maybe more interesting than what this chart tells us directly, are the questions it can spur. Like, ‘What’s the difference between Korea and Singapore?” They both score in the top 5 for performance but Korea has the least happy students in the world while Singapore’s students are some of the happiest. It turns out that while, South Korea is known for its high-intensity school system with near industrial size tutoring industry, Singapore’s education slogan is ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ and their education school emphasizes the central role of values and critical thinking.
OK, so that’s not completely true. For elementary school teachers, we’re #1. For secondary school teachers we’re #2, behind Chile. But still…
We know what teachers need to be more effective. They need: time to plan interesting and rigorous lessons, time to give meaningful feedback to students (multiple choice tests are most tempting when you don’t have time to grade), time for collaborating with other teachers, quality professional development, direct coaching from mentor teachers, etc… In higher performing countries like Switzerland and Singapore, all of these practices are central priorities. When I say they are priorities, I mean that they actually have time dedicated to them and they are seen as a fundamental part of a teachers job, not ‘something extra’ like it often seems in the US.
A High School teacher in the U.S. averages 1,051 hours in front of students per year. Compare that with the average of 656 hours for OECD countries. That’s almost 400 extra hours per year for all that good stuff I was just talking about! And that already takes into account the fact that we’re in school two weeks less per year than the OECD average!
Let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great.
There literally aren’t enough hours in the day for U.S. teachers to do all of the things that correlate with better instruction. Teachers in the U.S. often complain about mandated collaboration but not because they don’t want it. It’s because they’d rather be planning or grading, and they don’t have time for all three. It’s also common for U.S. teachers to give up the limited planning time they do have, to do individual tutoring, which is noble, but it shouldn’t be necessary. That reality plays into a ‘teacher as altruist’ expectation that we would never hold to other professions. I hope that most doctors get into the profession to help people, but as a society, we don’t expect them to stay after hours to consult the uninsured.
There’s a very dangerous sense in this country that teachers aren’t ‘really working’ unless they’re standing in front of a group of students. How would you feel if I told you, you had to give 30 separate presentations next week, and not only did you have to deliver them, but you had to execute them so well that each of the 100+ people in the audience would be able to recall over 80% of the details at the end of the week and, by the way, they’re teenagers. How much time would you like to prepare for something like that? How much individualized management would you need to do to make sure people were track? How much stress would you feel?
Reality #3 – Our Most Privileged Students Aren’t that Great
Education reformers in the United States tend to focus almost exclusively on the ‘Achievement Gap’ – the fact that poor and minority students in the U.S. perform tragically worse than their more privileged peers. A built in assumption to this focus, is the idea that our most privileged students are being educated just fine. The problem in the US isn’t with the fundamentals of our education system, it’s with the consequences of poverty.
But, what if we just look at the most privileged groups in each country, including those who attend private school? How do our most privileged do against the most privileged of other countries? It turns out, not so well. When we look at just top quartiles in the PISA’s socio-economic breakdown we come in 25th out of 39 countries in math. And remember, our most privileged are even better off than most of their counterparts in other countries.
We should certainly be working to close the gap in performance between demographic groups, but let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great. If we’re truly going to maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly global economy we’ll have to rethink how our best schools operate too.
|Top Socio-Economic Quartile Only||Bottom Socio-Economic Quartile Only|
|Ranking in Math Scores||Country||Socio-Economic Index Score* (How advantaged are the most privileged)||Country||Socio-Economic Index Score (How disadvantaged are the least privileged)|
|1||Hong Kong-China||0.50||Hong Kong-China||-2.00|
* Since income and poverty measurements don’t compare well across countries, the OECD and PISA use what they call an “Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status” It takes into consideration things like the highest level of parents education, the types of jobs parents have, if there’s a quiet place to do school work at home, if the family owns art, and other questions that allow for a more normalized comparison of privilege across countries.
Reality #4 – A Country’s Education System Matters More Than Wealth or Demographics
Let’s look at Finland and Norway. They’re both Scandinavian countries with fairly homogenous populations and low child poverty rates. But Finland’s students consistently score as some of the most capable in the world and Norway’s students perform even worse than the United States. What’s up with that?
Let’s look at Poland and the United States. Both countries have similar levels of childhood poverty, and on the whole, U.S. students participating in the PISA have considerably more affluent home environments than their Polish peers. But Polish students achieve at much higher levels than U.S. students. Even more interesting is the fact that that, 20 years ago the U.S. outperformed Poland on international tests.
The least advantaged students in Hong Kong are worse off than the same group in the U.S. but they score just as well in math as America’s most privileged students.
Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve.
Finland, Singapore, Poland, and China have all dramatically improved their education systems in the past decades while the U.S. has remained remarkably consistent in its subpar performance. Each country is unique, but all of their reform strategies had two things in common. 1) They increased the rigor of their standards. 2) They prioritized teacher preparation and professional development.
In the U.S., we’ve also tried to improve our education system in recent decades, but we’ve taken a different approach. We’ve tried to incentivize and manage improvement through a rigorous system of testing and accountability. A focus on incentives and accountability was a respectable idea in 2001, but it turns out that hasn’t worked very well.
Reality #5 – U.S. Teacher Morale is Going in the Wrong Direction
The 2012 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” showed that teacher morale in the U.S. is at a 25 year low. In 2008, 62% of teachers reported feeling very satisfied with their job. In 2012 that number was down to 39%. Over half of teachers reported feeling great stress several days a week. I believe that this dynamic is today’s single greatest threat to our nation’s long-term economic security. The causes of this dissatisfaction are complex but ultimately less relevant than its consequences. The simple fact is that, it’s hard for students to learn from people who are constantly stressed out by their jobs.
Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve. But across the country applications to teachers colleges are on the decline and fewer and fewer people are applying to alternative certification programs like Teach For America as well. Why would intelligent/capable people want to pursue a profession where over half the people feel ‘great stress’ several days a week? It doesn’t even pay very well.
Maybe this sort of lackluster education system was OK in the second half of the 20th century. Getting out of WWII with our infrastructure intact certainly gave us a good head start. For a few decades there, we were graduating a higher percentage of our people from college than any other country. But that percentage has flat lined at around 25% since the 1970s and the rest of the world is passing us by.
The solutions we come up with need to be uniquely American, but we’d be foolish not to learn from the rest of the world. We need to act and act big. Education isn’t going to fix itself.
For the research for this post, I’m indebted to Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” and Dana Goldstein’s “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” as well as to several articles by Linda Darling-Hammond, and to whoever compiled the myriad of spreadsheets found on the OECD’s website. Some of the analysis is my own. It’s a skill set I developed during my two years as a policy analyst for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
A special thanks to Caitlin Jordan for creating the featured political cartoon at the top of this post with very little notice.