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By Anne C.Lewis
AMERICANS don't take criticism from others lightly. We may debate our own faults endlessly and passionately, but when someone who is not one of us points them out, we erect a wall of indignation and sometimes myth around ourselves, and we dare the critics lo knock it down. That was a nice ride for a long time, but it's risky if we really start believing all those myths. (The supposed sullying recently of the reputations of Thomas Jefferson and Davy Crockett was a heavy blow to the lovers of the myths that have grown up around those men.)
Over the past few years, there has been considerable discussion in the pages of this magazine about international studies that show that our education system is not as good as we have come to believe. Often the defenders of that system focus on shooting the messenger, describing the studies as invalid research. Instead of rejecting the studies outright, it might be more helpful to see what aspects of them can serve as a wake-up call — an alarm that we shouldn't turn off in order to spend just a few more years peacefully snoozing and fooling ourselves.
The study battered the most by home-grown critics is the one reporting 12th-grade results from the 21 countries that participated at that level in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Fourth- and eighth-grade results escaped such severe treatment, perhaps because the former placed us rather high in the rankings and the latter found us slipping but still at least in the middle of the 40-plus countries included in those phases of TIMSS.
The reaction in this country to the 12th-grade TIMSS results has been acrimonious debate over the test itself. The debate is important because, as usual, the media and consequently the public see the results as a horse race and not much else. The decision to look at students in each nation at the "end of secondary schooling" as a cohort. even though that means accepting an age difference of one to three years among the participating student populations, does seem to mix apple students with orange students.
Moreover, when we were talking about opportunity-to-learn standards in this country not all that long ago, much was made about unfairly holding students accountable for material that they had not been taught at all or had not been properly taught. This argument has been launched against the 12th-grade TIMSS results, especially with regard to the advanced math portion of the test, because some questions required a knowledge of calculus, and some U.S. students in the group tested were pre-calculus students.
However, these are the wrong things to focus on in the TIMSS study. There are other messages that ought to concern educators in this country. If 12th grade is our "end of secondary schooling," then what should we expect our students to know by high school graduation? if we set lower expectations for the end of schooling than other industrialized nations do, is that what we want? Is it a better fit for our values? Or does it mean that we have not been willing to make the investment in the high-quality teachers and resources that are required to put us in the same league as Canada or the Scandinavian countries or the English-speaking nations of the South Pacific? All these countries ranked higher than the U.S. in the 12th-grade TIMSS outcomes.
The eighth-grade TIMSS results could have predicted the results for high school seniors. The release of the eighth-grade findings set in motion intense discussion about the prevalence of a "watered-down" curriculum in the middle grades. These finding's also sparked interest in other studies that showed how many students in those grades are being taught math and science by teachers who are poorly prepared or teaching out of their fields.
We should use the 12th-grade TIMSS results in a similar fashion: to force us to look at what we are teaching in math and science in our high schools and to make us take a hard look at who is doing the teaching and at the quality of the textbooks being used. One hopeful but curious finding that bears thinking about comes from the surveys of advanced students. We are among the most successful countries in erasing the gender gap in math performance by the end of the 12th grade. However, male students in advanced courses in the U.S. not only outperformed female students but also outperformed male students in most, but not all, other countries. If females do well in regular courses here but not so well in advanced courses, what does that say about the quality of instruction and the expectations for female students who make it into advanced courses?
In the debates over TIMSS and previous international studies, one defense of our system has been that the United States supports a larger percentage of students through more years of secondary schooling than do other countries. Because we have led the way in providing universal education, with a high school diploma as the societal goal for all students, our students, the argument goes. should not be compared to the "elite" of other countries. Fewer students in other countries finish secondary education, it was thought.
That is not true, either. A new study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that our high school graduation rate is now lower than lhe rate in many other countries. Some of these are the same countries that outperform us in math and science. A greater proportion of young people are receiving secondary diplomas in Finland. Norway, Poland, South Korea, the Czech Republic. France, Germany. Canada, and Ireland than in the U.S. Among the total adult population, up to age 64, lhe U.S. is next to the bottom (above Mexico) among the 29 countries in the OECD study in terms of high school diplomas awarded.
At least, we brag, we have a high college-going rate in this country. True. But we also have one of the highest dropout rates from higher education institutions, according to OECD. At 37%, our rate is not much consolation, but it is understandable. Our college-going rate includes a large percentage of low-income students enrolled in community colleges who do not complete even a two-year program.
The OECD study also debunks the idea that we pay teachers enough. According to a summary in the New York Times, an experienced high school teacher in the United States earns 1.2 times the per-capita share of the nation's gross domestic product. Only three countries in the study pay their teachers less. Teachers in Germany, Ireland. South Korea, and Switzerland, among others, earn at least twice the per-capita share of the GDP of their countries. Teachers' salaries are above the average for university graduates in many other countries. but not in ours.
Another myth — one we surely do not believe anymore — is that there is social mobility in this country. According to the OECD report, children in the United States whose parents completed college are more than three times as likely to become college graduates as are children whose parents did not complete high school. The achievement gap between affluent and low-income children is above the average for the countries in the OECD study — all of which are industrialized nations.
Finally, we have believed for a long time that we have enlightened policies regarding the welfare of children, far from the English heritage of viewing children as chattel. We do have a strong legal tradition of protecting children, and we have institutionalized policies for taking care of those who are most vulnerable. Yet we seem to have some lingering habits that could have come right out of a London orphanage in a Dickens novel. Amnesty International USA turned its investigative lens this year on how the United States treats children in its justice system and found that. in comparison to other countries, we should be ashamed.
In many instances, what we consider legal treatment in this country is prohibited by international law or violates standards adopted in multinational agreements, such as incarcerating youths under age 18 in adult prisons or putting them in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours. Currently, more than 1 1,000 children arc in prisons or other adult correctional facilities. In 1992 there were more than 89,000 incidences of extended solitary confinement of children. The United Status ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. which prohibits giving a death sentence to anyone who was under age 18 at the time of the crime. Since signing the agreement, there have been six executions of young people for crimes committed when they were younger than 18, and 70 others are awaiting execution.
Unlike many of the countries that these various studies compare the United States to. our "decision making" is much closer to the people. It is rather remarkable that we have maintained a continuing commitment lo public education when the control of that mammoth enterprise is in the hands of thousands of communities. They have so far kept the faith that traditionally rejects any centralized direction. The same is true of the juvenile justice system, which is also primarily a local and state matter. Nonetheless, this insularity has created and strengthened some myths that do not hold up well under scrutiny by those on the outside. Sometimes it is surely a gift to see ourselves as others see us
Date: 2015-10-21; view: 112; Нарушение авторских прав