It has become a common refrain among politicians and school reformers that the performance of American students on international tests is a reflection of the country's ability to compete economically. Here's a different view, written by William J. Mathis of Goshen, Vermont. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.
By William J. Mathis
What does international economic competitiveness have to do with kids' test scores?
If we look at it from a jobs perspective, 70 percent of United States jobs require only on-the-job training, 10 percent require technical training, and 20 percent require a college education.
Although the Obama administration claims that the jobs of the future will require much higher and universal skills, the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution says that the country's job structure profile will remain about the same. The proportion of middle skill jobs (plumbers, electricians, health care, police officers, etc.) is not expected to decline.
In stark contrast to the school reform rhetoric, the dramatic job slowdown will be in the more highly skilled jobs.
The cry reaches fullest volume when talking about science, math and technology training. This is where we are supposedly behind the "economically competitive" needs for the 21st century.
Unfortunately, only one-twentieth of United States jobs require science and math backgrounds. For these positions, there are three times as many qualified applicants as there are available positions. Far from any shortage, the United States produces 25% of the world's most talented youth.
The problem is not the failure to "supply" a sufficient number of qualified applicants; it is with the failure of the "demand" side of the equation to supply enough high tech jobs. Underemployment or unemployment among the college educated afflicts 13% of people with bachelor's degree people and 9% of those with post-graduate training.
Paradoxically, the universal ascent of technology requires less proficiency – not more -- for most jobs. For example, flashing items under a scanner requires less skill than hand- keying in prices. Despite the economic downturn, if the objective is to be internationally competitive in science, math and technology, then the private sector has to invest in these types of jobs. The numbers demonstrate they have not.
Contrary to the simplicity of the sound bite, the drivers of national economic competitiveness show a much more complex and nuanced connection with education. The United States fell from its usual first place in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) competitiveness index to fourth in the latest ratings (China is 27th). The reason for this fall was not education. Rather, it was macro-economic instability.
The nation's economic swoon has a whole lot more to do with sub-prime mortgages, exporting manufacturing jobs to low wage countries, debt, and the cost of two wars than it does with increasing our over-supply of highly trained, under-employed high tech people.
Having sound institutions, well-maintained infrastructure, market efficiency and business efficiency are among the more direct and influential factors in global competitiveness. In the WEF's "Twelve Pillars of Competitiveness," only two relate to education (health and primary education; higher education and training).
The Forum warns against cutting expenditures in basic education -- which, despite temporary federal bail-outs, is exactly what the states are doing. For higher education, where the United States has traditionally shined, the Forum speaks of teaching "adaptability." However, adaptability is not a trait often associated with the ever-increasing push for high stakes standardized testing.
Furthermore, predicting, standardizing, teaching and testing the hard skills that will be essential in the work force 20 years from now require a level of economic divination that is more prophecy than rational policy-making. Our best knowledge is that soft skills such as versatility, adaptability, using evaluative information, and encouraging a wide range of talents are far more important to national, economic and personal development than the mastery of certain cognate.
To be sure, many proponents for the new standardized tests claim they test higher-level skills. Such claims have been common in the past. The record, however, doesn't support the claim.
High stakes standardized tests narrow and dumb the curriculum. Social studies, science, art and music instruction have been reduced by a third in some states. If it is testable in a standardized way, it is unlikely to measure the knowledge, flexibility and creativity needed for a new and uncertain age.
Finally, if international test scores are your measure of interest, as the recent report on PISA points out, high scoring nations and school systems are characterized by equal opportunities for all children. [In the latest PISA results, American students overall earned generally average scores in reading, science and math, though scores in high-income areas had top scores.]
Unfortunately, the United States has become the most inequitable of the developed nations -- a very dubious number one ranking. The simple arithmetic shows that we will remain low-scorers as long as we perpetuate huge economic disparities and inequalities in the quality of schooling we provide. Number one ranked Finland has 3% poverty while the United States has over 25% poverty.
It is the scores of our most needy children that pull our national average down. One of the reasons that other nations are catching up and surpassing us is because they are building their middle class while the United States is pursuing policies that destroy theirs.
The highest scoring international states have high resiliency scores, which is based on the link between socioeconomic levels and test scores. That is, do children boot-strap their way up through education? The United States has among the worst resiliency rates.
Thus, education as the road to the American dream is becoming more of a dead-end. Further, when families and students fall into poverty in the United States, they tend to stay there far more than they do in other countries.
Yet as a matter of policy, the reforms promoted by both Republican and Democratic politicians explicitly or implicitly claim that the achievement gap (and thus equality) can be closed by dint of privatization, more efficient pedagogy and market based reforms. The research to date shows that even under the best of circumstances, such reforms simply do not have that much educational or social power.
So what does international competitiveness have to do with kids' test scores? Not much.
But if we obsess on test score ratings and test based accountability systems as our key to
international competitiveness, we will not only fail to be economically competitive, we will fail in the plain measures of equality, decency and fairness that are essential for a democracy and a civilized society.
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