U. S. Ain’t: The US shows no progress in international education test

The world is ending. Or at least it is in America. Or at least it is in American schools. After years and years of bold educational reforms, 15 year-olds in the US scored just about where they always have, when compared to students in developed countries around the world: about average in reading and science, lower in mathematics.

US education. PISA, OECD

Despite years of reform, the US continues to perform poorly on the OECD’s PISA test.

Surprising no one, students in East Asian countries knocked it out of the park, and those in Europe did pretty well, too. Meanwhile, among the 34 OECD countries, the US scored 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math. The margin of error is about three there, for all the optimists and pessimists out there.

The poor performance comes despite spending a ton of money. Among all the countries surveyed, the US had the third highest per capita income, and only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more per student. To illustrate, the Slovak republic spends around $53,000 per student and performs at the same level as the United States, which spends $115,000. Yikes.

And yea, it gets worse. The US did particularly poorly in measures of critical thinking. Things like, applying mathematics to real world problems. This is supposed to be our strong point. Or at least that’s what I always thought. Like, maybe we drop out of school like Bill Gates, but we still think outside of the box and all that. These test results seem to indicate otherwise.

Of course one might wonder how a standardized test can legitimately measure a student’s ability to think critically. For example, a student with strong critical thinking skills might realize that there are few personal rewards for doing well on these tests.

But then, maybe that attitude is just the problem, a reflection of our American individualist way of looking at life. I am not going to get into all that now, other than to say I always tried my best on standardized tests.  I promise.

So, what next? The OECD says that the Common Core standards should help. We’ve discussed those standards in our blog here and plan to discuss them more. One of the main selling points of Common Core standards is that they emphasize critical thinking. It is tough to prove that one way or the other, especially when standardized tests are actually “the box”, in that “think outside the box” metaphor. But it will be interesting to see.

We will dive into these results a bit more in the next blog post. Meanwhile, don’t lose heart. We still have Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Bob Dylan.

Back to School: The Adult Version

Parents and policymakers often voice concerns over the educational system for children in the US. Rarely, though, do we hear much about the educational system for adults. In fact, you may read this and wonder, what educational system for adults? According to a report released earlier this week by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), adults in the US perform significantly weaker than peers in other developed countries across several measures.

Adult Education, OECD

The US needs more options for adult education. Rukuku can help.

One of those measures is literacy. One in six adults in the US have low literacy skills, according to the study, compared to only one in 20 in Japan. Mathematics is another measure. There, one in three adults in the US performs poorly, compared to an average across the countries surveyed of one in five.  And the situation is not improving. Adults today scored at or below the levels of adults in the 1990s.

So what gives? The study offers a few ideas. One, initial schooling was not that strong. In other words, they didn’t learn this stuff the first time around. The good news there is that if we fix the school system for kids, then this factor will eventually correct itself. But there are other reasons, too. Socioeconomic correlation was much stronger in the US than in other countries, meaning poorer adults performed significantly worse than their more well-off peers.

Weaker educational skills mean dimmer job prospects, regardless of actual educational attainment. This was truer in the US than in other countries. It also goes beyond employment woes. Adults with low proficiency scores were four times more likely to have a low level of health than those with high scores. That difference was more than double the average across all countries surveyed.

But the news is not all bad. The US does do a good job of rewarding those with strong skills. Basic educational skills are more well-rewarded in the US, in terms of wages, than almost any other country surveyed. That means that the potential for getting a better job with just a little more studying is significant.

Another piece of good news is that most low-skilled workers in the US are still employed. That offers an avenue to reach these workers. Educational opportunities offered through the work place would benefit both the individual and his or her employer. Well, and society, too and also those of us who follow international test score rankings.

We can help. Rukuku offers lots of great content and course development tools as well as an innovative online environment to help adults looking to improve their academic and other skills. For employers, get in touch with us, too. We can set up easily deliverable educational programs for your employees, which will be great for them and great for your company.

Finntastic Education!

Government policymakers everywhere want to make their schools better. To do that, many of them look to the country of Finland for guidance. That’s right, Finland. Finland’s education system places first in the world in several different rankings, including this one, conducted by Education firm Pearson.  For comparison, Japan is fourth, Germany 15th, and the US 17th. After learning about the country’s stellar ranking, I wanted to know more. I did a bit of research (aka Googled Finland, Education), and learned some interesting facts.

Finland, education system

Finland’s education system ranks first in the world.

First, and my favorite, Finnish elementary students have more fun. Elementary students in Finland spend around 75 minutes a day for recess, compared to 27 minutes for students in the US. Teachers get more free time, too, spending only four hours per day in the classroom, on average. That leaves more time for evaluation, reflection, collaboration, and further training,

Second, people really want to be teachers. In 2010, 6600 people applied for 660 teaching positions in Finland, according to sources cited by the Smithsonian Magazine. The reason is probably not the salary. Primary school teachers in Finland have an average starting salary of less than $31,000 and maximum salary of about $40,000, compared to $38,000 and $53,000 respectively in the US. The profession is highly respected, though, and the government pays for the masters’ degrees for those accepted into the education training program. All teachers must have master’s degrees.

Those master’s degrees come in handy because the central government also gives a lot of autonomy to the country’s teachers and principals. The national government only offers broad guidelines, leaving it up to local officials and educators to determine the best methods for achieving those goals.

Finally, students usually have only one standardized test, which takes place when students are already approaching the end of high school. Students generally are kept in the same class as well, rather than separated into groups based on performance. As a result, the difference between the highest and lowest performing students is the lowest in the world.

There are many reasons why Finland’s educational model doesn’t translate easily to other places. The country is small, only 5.4 million people, and homogenous, with more than 90% of the population of Finnish descent. But even when compared to similar Scandinavian countries, or states like Kentucky or Minnesota, with similar demographics, its educational system outperforms.

So, which of these points – more recess for children, stricter requirements and more financial support and planning time for teachers, greater autonomy at the local level, or fewer standardized tests – do you think could be most beneficial for the educational system of your city, state, country?

Discovery and decline

Photo Credit: (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

The space shuttle Discovery’s final voyage over the Washington, DC area (and over my head) Tuesday morning was a spectacular sight. Unfortunately, it was also a spectacular reminder of the declining emphasis on science and mathematics in the American education system.

Yes, the space shuttle program had many faults. Its fatality rate was alarmingly high. It probably even deserved to be ended – but its end serves as a powerful symbol of our muddled priorities. Over the years, the space program inspired many people to become science, engineering and mathematics professionals. So whatever your views on federal spending happen to be, it is telling when there is about eighty times more money allocated for military spending (most of it to support our increasingly bizarre nation-building and intervention in the Middle East) than for NASA.

This attitude trickles down to the school system. American students’ science and math scores have remained very stagnant compared to those of other developed, and even developing, nations around the world. The problem starts with teachers: we have fewer and fewer qualified and passionate professionals teaching science and math because the inspiration and the incentives just aren’t there. The few who do exist are not sufficiently rewarded by the system.

Granted, the United States continues to have a good environment for encouraging tech innovation – private sector technology titans like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are ample proof of this. Sadly, we’re not doing a good job inspiring the next generation of innovators.