Still Worrying about Sputnik

One of the things I know is that anxiety is irrational. We worry about the wrong things and not about the things that should concern us. And then, of course, we don’t take the steps to do something about what we ought to be worrying about.

This week the New York Times has contributed to our collective anxiety attack.  First Thomas Friedman—whose theories about education derive from the thesis of his book, The World is Flat, that global economic competitiveness is magnified by the spread of on-line communications and technology—describes his tour of schools in Shanghai.  He reminds us that in his flat world, Shanghai’s children are beating ours on the international PISA exams.  And then Motoko Rich tells us supposedly better news from the TIMSS international tests.  She leads with, “Amid growing alarm over the slipping international competitiveness of American students,” and then tells us not to worry quite so much because at least “students in 36 states outperformed the international average on math exams given… in 2011.”  In other words there is cause for alarm about our international competitiveness, but maybe we aren’t as bad-off as we thought.

This is an old, old subject.  Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond addressed it directly in 2010 in her nearly 350 page book, The Flat World and Education, whose title demonstrates that her book is intended to speak directly to the allegations of Thomas Friedman.

In The Flat World and Education, Darling-Hammond exhaustively demonstrates that our education crisis is not a national crisis affecting all 50 million students in America’s public schools. It is instead a problem of equity.  Our society generously funds schools for wealthy children in exclusive suburbs, and the scores of those children demonstrate their parents’ as well as our collective investment.  However, we fail to invest in the things that matter in the schools that serve our poorest children.  And poor children are becoming a majority, as the Southern Education Foundation showed us last week, in the South and the West, and across our big cities.  A huge cause of this inequality is our persistent reliance on local property taxes to fund public education.  Here is exactly how Darling -Hammond describes the problem in The Flat World and Education:

“International studies continue to confirm that the U.S. educational system is also one of the most unequal in terms of inputs.  In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states.  These disparities reinforce the wide inequalities in income among families, with the greatest resources being spent on children from the wealthiest communities and the fewest on the children of the poor, especially in high-minority communities.  This creates huge inequalities in educational outcomes that ultimately weaken the very fabric of our nation.” (p. 12)

“These disparities have come to appear inevitable in the United States; however they are not the norm in developed nations around the world, which fund their educational systems centrally and equally, with additional resources often going to the schools where students’ needs are greatest.” (p. 8)

“One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

Diane Ravitch also addresses the issue of international scores in her new book, Reign of Error.  Here is what she writes about the PISA international tests:

“American students in schools with low-poverty—the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor—had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.  In U.S. schools where less than a quarter of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.., the reading scores were similar to those of students in high-performing nations.  Technically the comparison is not valid, because it involves comparing students in low-poverty schools in the United states with the average score for entire nations.  But it is important to recognize that the scores of students in low-poverty schools in the United States are far higher than the international average, higher even than the average for top-performing nations, and the scores decline as poverty levels increase, as they do in all nations.” (pp. 64-65)

Ravitch concludes, “We have made genuine progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, but they will remain large if we do nothing about the causes of the gaps.” (p. 55)

I hope we value our children in America for more than their mere potential to boost U.S. global economic competitiveness.  Every child should have an opportunity to fulfill her or his promise.  Clearly, as indicated by the standardized test scores of our wealthiest children, we do know how to educate children in America.  What our society lacks, however, is the political will to do what we know how to do.  How have we lost sight of our moral and civic responsibility to educate all our children?  Maybe getting over our anxiety attack about U.S. global competitiveness would let us concentrate on the job at hand.

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