Regular readers will know that one of the things I routinely flog is the errant belief that U.S. schools are failing, even though international comparisons seem to suggest that our educational system is DOOMMEEDD!!! Jennifer Ouellette, in an otherwise superb post about integrating art and science education, makes the same error:
By now the depressing statistics are all too familiar: the US ranks #25th worldwide in math, #21st in science (behind countries like Estonia and Slovenia), #27th in percentage of college graduates in science and technology, and a pathetic #48th in the quality of K-12 math and science education. The only area where American students excelled? Self confidence! US students are #1 in thinking they rock at math and science, which would be fine if this confidence were based in reality. It isn’t. “The rest of the world is rising and the US is falling asleep at the wheel,” Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, told the assembled crowd.
The problem is that many schools, those that have fewer than 25% of their students below the poverty line, do extremely well–in fact, schools with less than 10% in poverty, outclass every other country. Likewise, when one controls for poverty, U.S. schools overall excel. So, while I’m not a big ‘self-esteem’ supporter, many U.S. students should feel good about how they’re doing, since, at least in relative terms, they are doing very well.
But this simply isn’t about indulging a “someone is wrong on the internet” streak (hell, I like Cocktail Party Physics). There is a serious issue here. And it’s serious because this faulty definition of the problem is so widespread, even among the Coalition of the Sane.
Our educational system is not failing. In fact, large sections of it–those not associated with poverty–do extremely well. But the bottom third, give or take, is doing poorly to miserably. That’s correlated with poverty. We can argue about why that might be the case: conservatives will have one set of explanations, liberals another, and batshitloonitarians yet another. Unfortunately, we’re not even having the appropriate discussion because we are wasting our time with a non-existent problem.
The Coalition of the Sane really needs to step up the intellectual rigor regarding education, especially if we claim to value education (as opposed to solely using it as a bludgeon against the theopolitical right).