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US schools getting better, not worse


Registered Member
Danny Westneat | Time to school this myth | Seattle Times Newspaper

It's a given that America's once-great schools are slipping, sliding behind the rest of the world. The big fight, then, is over what to do about it.

But what if the first part just isn't true?

Recently, after global test scores were released in reading, math and science, angst was our biggest export for a day. U.S. officials, not least President Obama, all said the scores prove we are losing the brain race, much as we once were at risk of losing the space race.

"Test Scores Send U.S. Education Anxiety into Orbit," read a typical headline, echoing the theme that we're having another Sputnik moment.

"We have to face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

I am prone to these worries myself. I am a dad of two young kids, so almost by definition I'm wracked with self-doubt.

So I was fascinated to see that a former sixth-grade teacher has pored over nearly 50 years of international test scores and found that much of what we think about our place in the educational world is a myth.

"The United States never led the world," writes Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution researcher, in a report last week. "It was never number one and has never been close to number one."

In fact, U.S. schools are doing better now than 50 years ago, at least by these international measures, and have moved up compared to many other countries.

His report — called "How Well Are American Students Learning?" and available at Brookings - Quality. Independence. Impact. — says that when international testing first started, in 1964, we finished second to last among the countries tested.

Now we're about average (well behind some Asian countries, so obviously there's plenty of room for more improvement.)

But in the latest scores, the ones that caused such panic, the U.S. made leaps in both math and science, long considered our weakest subjects. For example, the U.S. scores in science jumped from ranking 29th three years ago to 22nd now (out of 67 countries or territories.)

"Some of the reaction to the scores was curious," Loveless writes. "United States gains were mostly ignored."

Why is that? I get that if you're trying to change or reform something, it might not help your cause to notice when it improves.

Plus we seem intimidated right now by all things Chinese — thanks, Tiger Mom! — so any comparison with Asian countries is bound to touch off a national round of self-flogging.

But maybe there's something deeper going on here.

Recently a former cop and now University of Washington sociology professor, Jonathan Wender, was asked why most Americans darkly insist that crime is rising, even as actual crime has fallen to levels so low that law-and-justice types now fret it may be impossible to make it go any lower.

Anxiety is a function of our status, Wender told KIRO radio. It isn't like this in developing countries. People who live in "relative comfort and security" are the ones "most terrified of things that go bump in the night."

Is that why there's so much negativity in the land, about so many things? Fear of being knocked off a perch?

There's good reason to worry about jobs and deficits and dysfunctional politics. But we're also stubbornly down in the dumps about things like crime, where there have been near-miracle levels of improvement. And schools, where problems are plenty but so are signs that we can move in the right direction.

The president and others keep repeating the Sputnik analogy, in the hope that fear motivates. But it can also blind.
This article changes my entire view of the state of our education system. Don't get me wrong - I went to public school for my entire K-12 career, and 2 years of college (so far). I know how messed up our schools are.

But this convinces me that it's yet another case of people (many of whom are politicians) using disinformation and scare tactics to push their agendas. It's getting disgusting.