The lackluster performance of American 15-year-olds in international academic testing is arousing debate, and widely diverging viewpoints are strikingly crystallized in essays by Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee.
The Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, was administered to 15 year olds in 65 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes the world's wealthiest nations. A New York Times story by Motoko Rich reports that more than 6,000 American kids took the tests. The story says American test-takers were out-scored in math by students in 29 countries. Students in 22 countries did better in science, and students in 19 countries did bettering reading. The scores put school systems in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea in the top ranks.
"In the midst of increasingly polarized discussions about public school education, the scores set off a familiar round of hand-wringing, blaming and credit-taking," Rich writes.
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington DC, writes in Time that we should be appalled at the state of American public schools, which she says perform "at the same level as (those in) the Slovak Republic where the government spends half as much per pupil and the GDP is 171 times smaller." Rhee says America didn't settle for 26th place in the Olympics, and we shouldn't settle for an educational system that puts young Americans at a disadvantage in an increasingly global economy.
Diane Ravitch, historian of education at New York University, says if the PISA scores show anything, it's that the test and punish strategies of the last dozen years don't work. "No child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores," Ravitch writes at Huffington Post. She notes American kids have never scored near the top in international testing. Rhee agrees, but says we need to keep aiming higher. Ravitch cites research by educational consultant and author Keith Baker who found no relationship between a nation's economic productivity, the quality of its life and democratic institutions, and test scores of its students. As a sign of creativity, Ravitch writes, the U.S. has produced more patents per million people than any other nation.
Rhee, who is also the founder of StudentsFirst, a political lobbying and education reform nonprofit, asserts that "We spend so much time on making our kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of taking the time necessary to make them good." She says that underpinning educational improvement, we must have "a national desire to become the best, and our reaction to the PISA results will indicate whether that is the case."
Ravitch says improving the quality of life for the nearly one quarter of American students who live in poverty would improve their academic performance. Ravitch thinks the more we emphasize test scores, the more we reward compliance and conformity, and the less we focus on ingenuity, creativity, the ability to think differently and capacity to ask good questions. She writes that she'd prefer tending to "character, persistence, ambition, hard work and big dreams," none of which can be measured by standardized tests like PISA.
Red Rhee's piece here, Ravitch's piece here, and the New York Times story here.