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This comes from Michael Hynes, one of the best superintendents on Long Island, Néw York, epicenter of the Opt Out movement:
Public Schools Work- We Need to Focus Below the Iceberg
Everyone in American education hears the relentless and consistent criticism of our schools: Compared to schools in other nations, we come up short. But the evidence on which that judgment rests is narrow and very thin.
A January study released by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect,” challenges the practice of ranking nations by educational test scores and questions conventional wisdom that the U.S. educational system has fallen badly behind school systems abroad.
The study compared six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China. They then examined 24 “indicators” within those dimensions.
Of the nine nations, the United States remains the wealthiest with the most highly educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed, and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.
“Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.
Despite high educational levels, the United States also reflects high levels of economic inequity and social stress compared to the other nations. All are related to student performance. For example, in American public schools today, the rate of childhood poverty is five times greater than it is in Finland. Rates of violent death are 13 times greater than the average for the other nations, with children in some communities reporting they have witnessed shootings, knifings, and beatings as “ordinary, everyday events.”
Some key findings:
• Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.
• Social Stress: The U.S.reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The U.S.is also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.
• Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.
• Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.
• Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. There are no current studies comparing the performance of high school graduates across countries. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.
• System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.
“Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx.
American policymakers from both political parties have a history of relying on large, international assessments to judge United States’ school performance. In 2013, the press reported that American students were falling behind when compared to 61 other countries and a few cities including Shanghai. In that comparative assessment—called the Program for International Student Assessment—PISA controversially reported superior scores for Shanghai.
The study doesn’t oppose international assessments as one measure of performance. But it argues for the need to compare American schools with similar nations and on more than a single number from an international test. In a striking metaphor, the study defines test scores as just “tip of the school iceberg.”
A fair conclusion to reach from the study is that while all is not well in the American classroom, our schools are far from being the failure they are painted to be. Addressing serious school problems will require policymakers to do something about the huge part of the iceberg that lies below the waterline in terms of poverty and economic inequity, community stress, and support for families and schools. We must stop blaming public schools and demonizing educators. The problem is not at the tip of the iceberg, it is well below the surface.
Michael Hynes is the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District and member of the National Superintendent’s Roundtable