China and Finland are No. 1, and America has fallen like a stone, right? Not so fast

A report was released in February that did not receive nearly the amount of attention that I thought it deserved. CNN had a brief interview with Michelle Rhee and the CNN “education reporter” but the conversation focused less on the report and its contents, and more on the interviewees’ perception of  “school reform.”

I am referring to the 2010 Brown Center report on American Education: How Well are American Students Learning? The report set out to address three different questions, including Who’s Winning the Real Race to the Top? and NAEP and the Common Core Standards.

While those topics are definitely of interest, I want to comment here on the first part of the report,  International Tests, which sets out to analyze the results from the international tests referred to by many to emphasize the poor academic performance of students in the United States. When I first read the title, I assumed it was more of the same “U.S education is failing” comparisons. After all, who doesn’t already know that Finland and China rule in the world of international tests, and that the United States has lost its first-place edge over the last few years?

So what did the Brown Center Report conclude? First of all, the United States has never been number one on international tests of achievement. The assertion that the United States once led the world on international tests years ago, and that the fall to the bottom of the pack is relatively recent, appears to be a myth. According to the report, the United States has never been number one on math or science tests. In fact, the United States’ performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test has been flat to slightly up since its inception, and has improved on Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) since 1995.

The report also addresses the China and Finland phenomenon. The report points out that “China” is really “Shanghai” on the international comparisons, since China as a nation does not participate in international assessments. Shanghai is a city (albeit a large one with approximately 11 million inhabitants), but is certainly not the entire country of China (with a population of approximately 1.3 billion). The report also mentions that Shanghai is not representative of China as a whole, describing Shanghai as “the jewel of Chinese schooling.”

As for Finland, yes, it is a country, although with a population of approximately 5 million, not not even half the population of Shanghai. Furthermore, the idea that Finland is the top scoring nation in the world on international testing is not completely accurate. Finland is number one on PISA, which the report points out could possibly reflect a curriculum mirroring the content of the PISA, but has never been number one on TIMSS. As the report accurately points out, the content of a test – i.e., the alignment of what is taught and what is tested – matters, as anyone who has had experience with assessment knows very well knows.

This is not to say that we cannot learn from Finland or China and the international tests. We should, however, be cautious in how we interpret international test results.

Education has become a political football at times, with individuals and groups quoting specific research selectively. How many people have actually read the PISA and  TIMSS reports, rather than parroting inaccurate information from what they hear in the media? It would behoove us to read the Brown Center Report on American Education. People may learn something surprising. I did.

Manny Barbara, former Superintendent of the Oak Grove School District, is VP of Advocacy and Thought Leadership for SVEF. He has been selected four times as Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, and as Educator of the Year in 2008 by 100 Black Men of Santa Clara County. During his 10 years as superintendent, performance increased for all district student subgroups, including the number of students successfully completing algebra and geometry by the end of 8th grade.

Author: Manny Barbara

Manny Barbara, former Superintendent of the Oak Grove School District, is VP of Advocacy and Thought Leadership for SVEF. He has been selected four times as Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, and as Educator of the Year in 2008 by 100 Black Men of Santa Clara County. During his 10 years as superintendent, performance increased for all district student subgroups, including the number of students successfully completing algebra and geometry by the end of 8th grade.

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