PISA: U.S. Test Scores Below Average, Again

educationBy Matt

I know. We’re all so surprised, right? According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students continued to test below average for the 2012 school year. Considering the assets we have at our disposal, average ought to be a disgrace, much less below average, again. Just a few PISA scores showed we ranked 26 out of 34 in math, 17th in reading, and 21st in science. What can we realistically do about that? What’s the answer to solving this problem? Well, there is no singular answer to this tragedy, but make no mistake, it must be solved, or else.

Aristotle said of education, “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.” Jefferson also saw the import of education when he similarly said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In short, this issue intimately affects us all more than we might care to admit. Wholly solving our decades old slide in education is a monumental task. But I’d like to throw a few suggestions out there as to why we rank so poorly, and what we can do about it; suggestions mind you that are not politically correct, which is why they have remained unsolved, and our education system unfixed.

First of all, despite claims to the contrary, its not for lack of funding. One of the PISA findings was that the U.S. rankings were similar to the Slovak Republic, which spent 53,000 USD per student to our 115,000 USD per student, over the life of their academic career. According to a CBS story done in June, the U.S. spends more per capita and more as a percentage of our economy than any country in the world. The federal budget alone for fiscal year 2013 for education is roughly 138 billion dollars. Roughly half of that money goes directly to the Department of Education. One might make an argument therefore that the money is not properly being budgeted and its not getting to the students. I would partially agree with that assessment. But, with these statistics in mind, one simply can’t make the claim that we are not spending enough money. We are…spending enough money.

That leads me to my first point on how we might solve this issue. We have too many bureaucrats in the education system!! Get rid of them, get rid of most of their rules, and just let the teachers teach! If we massively shrunk the size of the Department of Education, which was a gift to us all courtesy of the Carter Administration, then we could actually spend more of the money we collect on the students! What a novel idea! Part of the problem is, despite spending more money on education than any other country, much of that money isn’t actually getting to the student.

Problem is, government bureau’s once created, never voluntarily shrink in size, and politically, it is almost impossible to shrink them. But, its a big part of the problem, and it can’t be ignored if we want to get out from under the predicament we are now in. Just think of what we could do with all the extra money we would have if bureaucrats in Washington and elsewhere weren’t first taking half of it for themselves! We could pay teachers more and attract more talented teachers and therefore better retain them.

Great. Now that we have some more money freed up, and man o’ man, we haven’t even raised any taxes, now we can move onto merit-based pay, aka, the method by which almost EVERY other profession in this country is paid. I’d be the first to admit, and teachers are quick to point out, that the scores of a class are not necessarily indicative of how well a teacher teaches, though it seems pretty logical that this would be the case. Take a well-off suburban school, and a sub-par teacher, and compare the scores of those students with a failing urban school with a good teacher, and its entirely possible that the sub-par teachers’ students may in fact do better, despite the teacher’ lack of ability. Totally possible. There are ways around that. Students relative scores, as in, relative to years past in that school district, should be one, just one, of the criteria in teacher evaluation, but far from the only one. The point remains the same, namely, to incentivize teachers through merit-based pay, which can be done with a number of different criteria in mind…and there’s no reason they wouldn’t teach even better.

However, to actually better incentivize teachers as a whole, they have to also know that there job is not secure. How cruel! Well, again, its how the rest of the country operates. Why shouldn’t it be a little easier than it now is to fire a bad teacher, especially with teachers, considering the incredible import of their job? Can anyone answer that for me? This is where unions come in. Oh, actually, they came in on the last paragraph as well. Teachers unions don’t want merit-based pay, and they don’t want to do away with teacher tenure either. And that makes sense. After all, their job is to protect teachers. Problem is, teachers unions are one of the most powerful lobbying groups in this country, and, there are a lot of teachers in this country as well, a lot. There’s a reason its been almost impossible to hasten any change in education over the last 40 or 50 years, particularly the ones just mentioned, and teachers unions are a big big reason, though again, not politically correct to point out.

I’m not disparaging teachers here. I’m disparaging the system. If I were teacher, I would probably like tenure and regularly scheduled pay increases no matter what as well! One of the big reasons merit-based pay and tenure are not harped on too loudly and persistently by most politicians is that those who are in favor of merit-based pay and who are against tenure, if they make these opinions public, are said to simply HATE teachers. It is said of them, “They just keep blaming the TEACHERS! How DARE people talk down to our teachers. Theirs is the hardest and most important job in the world!”. Well, it absolutely is, but teachers are people just like anyone else, and there are good ones and there are bad ones. And schools should have the ability to sort that out. Sorry if that hurts anyone’s feelings.

Again, the problem is, despite the fact that most teachers are great, when you have a system in place where if you are a good enough teacher to not get fired for your first few years, in many places you get tenure, and in those places that don’t officially have it, because of the unions, it is still almost impossible to fire a teacher, AND, if you have a system where you generally get salary increases year after year completely irrespective of job performance, where pay is only dependent on years worked, you actually end up disproportionately attracting the type of people on the front end that…you might not want to attract. It’s not anti-teacher to point that out. Most teachers do their jobs and do them well. I’m simply pointing out human nature here.  I know…how dare I.

Making changes in pay and tenure would make an inordinate amount of difference in keeping and retaining even better teachers for all of the above reasons, but these issues are far from the only culprits responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in. As great as most teachers are, being able to effectively teach all starts in the HOME. While successfully teaching a student who comes from a dysfunctional home might be technically possible to overcome, in many instances it is almost impossible to teach a student if they are undisciplined and don’t want to learn in the first place because of their upbringing. Teachers can be miracle workers, but they really can only do so much.

What’s the saying…”you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? If students have no discipline, then how can you teach them? If their lives are a wreck at home, its much much harder to teach them. You have to overcome THAT, if you can, before you can even try to teach them. I bet many of the Asian countries that are doing better on these PISA tests than the U.S. are actually disciplining their students in school more, and I bet in many cases they are finding more discipline at home as well. Discipline is the foundation for being able to teach, and I think we are lacking in these regards, in a big way. In short, education is also a societal problem as well, which may be the main problem, not easily solved, or quickly for that matter.

Home can’t be emphasized enough. I know we are talking about school here, but a good home can actually overcome a bad school system. It may be hard, but it can be done. If mom and dad make sure little Johnny is actually doing all their work, and parents are helping them through it, the school really becomes simply a means to an end, an enabler if you will. School gives guidance and offers the curriculum and the teacher, but that’s really only half of the battle. I think too many peoples mentalities have changed over time in these regards, and not for the better. Your children are your responsibility first and foremost. You should be doing their homework with them if needs be or at least checking that they do it. Parents need to get more involved.

Parents are the final arbiters that hold, or don’t hold their children to account, not teachers. I think more and more people are thinking, “hey, they go to school, that’s what the school is for. The school will hold them to account and make sure little Johnny is doing his work. And if he isn’t, then they’ll let me know”. Well, there’s only so much a school can do and should do, and especially if its not a good school, in which case, no, they actually might not tell you if Johnny is not doing well. Don’t assume too much. Education starts and ends in the home. Parents need to be way more involved than many currently are in making sure heir kids are doing their work and understand it.

I also think we probably ought to spend more time on reading, writing, and arithmetic, and a little less time making out children good little activists. People might find it cute, or even vitally important, when little kids are taught to advocate for world peace and collect money for the latest natural disaster at school. I don’t. And I think I might be in the minority on that. I’ve seen the tremendous frequency with which such activities occur having formerly been a school bus driver. Social activities like that, as a general rule, ought to be reserved for home. Social engineering is not the duty of our school system. I’m the person who ought to be teaching my kids these things and involving them in such matters, if I think they are old enough, not teachers. And guess what, if schools concerned themselves less with these things, again, they would have even more time to teach the basics, now wouldn’t they?

Fixing our education system is an issue deeper and more complicated than most people make it out to be. No, it’s not a matter of just throwing more money at bad policy. We have to conduct a full frontal assault including getting, incentivizing and retaining great teachers, lessening the bureaucracy so they can just teach, and better disciplining out children at school and at home. If I were king for a day, that’s where I would start. I think doing so would get us well on our way. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.




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