Friday, June 26, 2009

America is falling behind...So what?

Some complaints about schools are as predictable as nightfall. The one that bugs me most is that American schools are falling being schools elsewhere in the world. You've heard it a million times--American students are worse at math than students in all of the OECD countries, or they graduate at a lower rate than students in Greece, or... (fill in the blank). Just look at these search results.

It is true that these reports get some criticism, but mostly on methodological points--the US tries to educate a higher proportion of its students than other nations, for example. But they deserve a different sort of scrutiny.

For me, the frustration with the "America is falling behind" trope is that it is a complaint with no lifting power at the level of schools (really, at any level below federal policy and the world of ed research). I can guarantee that any K-12 or higher ed institution that tries to motivate its students and faculty with the worry that we are falling behind will get nowhere. Why? Because that complaint does not translate into clear action. (And even if it did at one school, that schools improvement will not change America's ranking in the world.) What would a school do? Enter a think-off with a school in Romania?

The problem is that there is no such thing as "America's schools." To say that there is, is to ignore the real world or to express some sort of statist fantasy--that education exists really to raise America's status in the world, or that education is the equivalent of the olympics, judged in some sort of global competition.

If we want to improve education, then we would be well to pay attention to much more local factors--do teachers and administrators know their students? Can the school work with that student as an individual? Are parents engaged? Is the goal of the classroom learning rather than teaching? Are expectations high? Is there a community that supports the school? Do the students, teachers, administrators, and parents share objectives? Are those objectives measurable and measured?

Let Arne Duncan and the cadre of HE researchers worry about whether "we" are "better" than Norway. For those of us involved in education reform, there are other things to worry about.

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