Reports by expert commissions on public education are legion and most gather dust. An unfortunate exception is those studies that excite or speak to widespread public fears of a foreign enemy. One classic in this genre is the 1983 study, "A Nation At Risk," that indicted US schools as a principal source of national decline. Both in tone and substance this document contributed to a national hysteria that continues to narrow the mission of our schools.
Issued as the US emerged from years of economic stagnation, "A Nation at Risk" offered apocalyptic rhetoric that tapped long-standing anxieties: "Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
"A Nation at Risk" began a two-decade-long process of attributing ills of all sorts to the lack of standards in our schools. Business leaders tell us that foreign competitors beat us in the workplace because their schools work those children longer and harder and subject them to more rigorous standards. Following on the lead of such advice, many states, including my home state of Maine, inaugurated standardized testing regimes for all schools, with some states making those tests graduation requirements.
Yet every aspect of this catechism is open to question. Even if one accepts, as I do not, the notion that a school's performance on standardized tests is an adequate measure of its success, the constant criticism of US performance on international tests is misplaced. As Gerald Bracey, a close student of educational testing, has pointed out in The American Prospect, the reiteration of national standings on various standardized tests has become a kind of unexamined mantra. It pushes local schools to teach to the tests and it distracts attention from consideration of more equitable and democratic reforms educators and activists might explore.
Reports of the international shame of American education are highly exaggerated. US rank in the standings depends on the subject matter being tested. Bracey reports that in reading American students are outstanding: "In the major comparative study of reading, conducted in 1992, American students finished second in a comparison of 31 nations. The only students who did better came from Finland, a small, homogeneous country that taxes its citizens at a far higher level."
In math and science, the US has not done as well, but has still been in the middle of the pack. Even with math and science, those emphasizing lax US standards turn a curiously blind eye toward many of the factors that do distinguish the best foreign schools from our own.
Where their schools clearly are ahead is in professional development and curricular emphases. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, points out that: "In all the countries that outperform us in math and science.. a higher percentage of teachers has extensive training in the subject matter they teach. Their degrees are not in that amorphous field called education. A 1996 Education Department survey revealed that the majority of American math and science teachers do not have academic degrees in math or science. These teachers are entirely dependent on state-mandated, second-rate textbooks and teaching manuals."
Perhaps the largest disservice performed by all such international comparisons is that they treat US schools as a monolith. David Berliner, regents' professor and dean of Arizona State University's college of education highlighted a seldom told tale of American education in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Twenty public schools districts north of Chicago which serve predominantly wealthy suburban children gained permission to compete in a major international test "as a separate nation. Statistically, these public school students are on a par with the top scorers internationally in mathematics and science." Berliner then contrasted these public schools with others in Southern Illinois where scores lag considerably behind US and world norms. These children have "been served by dismal schools -- an embarrassment to a nation as rich as ours. Yet any good, random sample of US schools for any international assessments includes both kinds of districts, those similar to East St. Louis and those that resemble the North Shore of Chicago. Put them together, and you hide important distinctions between schools in different communities."
No one would argue that American schools, even its better ones, would not benefit from reforms. But before we embrace "reforms" that would impose significant further burdens on children and parents, discourage creative teachers from entering the field, and further discredit public education, it behooves us to look at alternatives. Better support for our teachers, more adequate pre school programs, and smaller class sizes are at least as well supported by international comparisons and scholarly literature and therefore at least as justifiable -- unless our only real agenda is to reinforce both class biases and draconian standards on those already most exploited by our political economy.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Etta Kralovec, of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (Beacon Press). He invites comments at email@example.com.