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Jay Mathews

The truth on education: U.S. was never No. 1

"U.S. students, who once led the world, currently rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math," Newsweek reported this fall. I hear that a lot. Politicians and business leaders often bemoan the decline of American education compared to the rest of the world. We are doomed, they say, unless we (fill in here the latest plan to save the country).

So I was surprised to find, in the latest report by the wonderfully contrarian Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, that the notion of America on the downward track is a myth. The data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.

Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, says in his annual report on American Education:

"The United States never led the world. It was never No. 1 and has never been close to No. 1 on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter. It is more accurate to say that the United States has always trailed the world on math tests."

"The U.S. performance on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has been flat to slightly up since the test's inception, and it has improved on TIMSS (the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests) since 1995."

This is not exactly good news, but context is important. If we have managed to be the world's most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.

Loveless is one of the nation's leading experts on PISA and TIMSS. He has been part of the cohorts of specialists who advise those programs. In his report, he says the first international test comparable to those two was the First International Math Study (FIMS) in 1964. It assessed 13-year-olds in 12 countries. The United States placed next to last, just ahead of Sweden.

We were beaten by Israel, Japan, Belgium, Finland, Germany, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, France and Australia, in that order. Other age groups were tested with similarly disappointing results for the United States.

In the latest PISA and TIMSS tests, the United States did better, scoring in the middle of the pack. On PISA, the United States was up 5 points in reading, 13 points in math and 13 points in science.

Loveless, a former teacher, cannot resist tarnishing the shiny reputations of our most celebrated international competitors, while he is on the subject. He declares that the often-heard assumption that Finland has the best educational system in the world, with India and China coming on strong, also is a myth.

Loveless points out that India and China are very large, very poor countries that are so ill equipped for international tests that they have never participated in them as countries. Shanghai scored No. 1 one on the latest PISA, but that is no indicator of how China would do.

Loveless is less dismissive of Finland, which has been scoring well for several years. But he says Americans who love the Finnish model of paying teachers higher salaries, decentralizing authority over educational decisions and eschewing high-stakes standardized testing should tune into the debate the Finns are having about their schools.

Finnish children were doing well on international tests before those reforms were adopted. That suggests that cultural and societal factors might be the more likely reason for their success. Many Finnish mathematicians say that the country is catering too much to PISA, which emphasizes word problems and practical applications of math, and neglecting to prepare students for college math. Loveless says more than 200 university mathematicians in Finland petitioned the education ministry to complain of students increasingly arriving in their classrooms poorly prepared.

Everyone has problems, even the much-admired Chinese, Indians and Finns. We should stop talking about some golden age of schooling that never existed, and instead look for ways to create one. But no one should expect that is going to happen quickly, or without controversy.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist for the Washington Post. © 2011 Washington Post

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U.S. rankings

Read the Brookings report on American education at tinyurl.com/64d3bw3.

The truth on education: U.S. was never No. 1 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 7:11pm]

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