Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reformers' narrative about lagging U.S. schools covers up poverty

“The brutal fact here is there are many countries that are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are." -- Arne Duncan
"Our competitors understand that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow." -- Pres. Obama
The rationale behind corporate-style school reform begins and ends with this disturbing narrative that portrays U.S. schools as lagging behind in the global race to the top. This lag is supposedly to blame for the country's economic failures and the declining competitive position of American corporations in the global economy. This narrative also underlies current school reform efforts and  Duncan's Race To The Top initiative in particular. RTTT has forced the closing of thousands of schools and turning them over to privately-managed charter schools as well as the firing of thousands of teachers. None of this has improved the U.S. position in the global economy one iota. Nor has it done much to improve public education as a whole.

International reading scores by social class.
A new report released yesterday shows that in fact, shows that U.S. schools ARE NOT being outpaced by international competition. What the report, "What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?"  really shows is that social and economic inequality in the U.S. is the real culprit and what's really putting this country at a disadvantage globally.

The study's authors found that average U.S. scores in reading and math on the PISA are low partly because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students comes from disadvantaged social class groups, whose performance is relatively low in every country.

As I and many others have been arguing for years, apparent low average test scores in the U.S. are really a reflection of a two-tier school system with high concentrations of poverty and racial segregation. The new study confirms that wealthier U.S. schools have scores which are competitive with those in any other nation, while those in high-poverty areas are near the bottom. The real problem with current school reform policies is that they reproduce those inequities and further widen the gap between the two tiers.

As part of the study, researchers Martin Carnoy, a professor of education at Stanford, and Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)  calculated how international rankings on the most recent PISA exams might change if this country had a social class composition similar to that of top-ranking nations: U.S. rankings would rise to fourth from 14th in reading and to 10th from 25th in math. The gap between U.S. students and those from the highest-achieving countries would be cut in half in reading and by at least a third in math.
"You can't compare nations' test scores without looking at the social class characteristics of students who take the test in different countries," said Carnoy. "Nations with more lower social class students will have lower overall scores, because these students don't perform as well academically, even in good schools. Policymakers should understand how our lower and higher social class students perform in comparison to similar students in other countries before recommending sweeping school reforms."

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