Global competitiveness: Does the data match the rhetoric?

In era where world figures from Bill Gates to President Bush have expressed concerns about the state of American education, suggesting that a trend of substandard student performance might eventually strip the United States of its status as a world economic power, some in education have begun to question the accuracy and pessimism of such forecasts.

Amid charges that U.S. students are losing ground to their academic counterparts in other industrialized nations, author and researcher Gerald Bracey told attendees at the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Conference in San Dan Diego Feb. 25 to use caution when believing what they see and hear in the papers.

In his book Setting the Record Straight, Bracey, an associate for the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, sets out to debunk what he calls “the myths” surrounding education and global competitiveness. Though the nation’s current education system leaves a lot to be desired, he says, there is very little evidence that America is in danger of losing its place as a world economic leader.

So what’s with all these doom and gloom scenarios you’ve been reading about in the press lately? More than anything, Bracey says, it’s a question of misinterpreting data.

“Sometimes you have to see the data … and you have to make the rhetoric match the data,” Bracey told the morning audience.

Citing results from a battery of highly-publicized national and international academic indicators, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more commonly called The Nation’s Report Card; TIMSS, short for Trends in International Mathematics Study; and PIRLS, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Bracey said what is perceived by the media as a decline in the performance of U.S. students is the result of our tendency as a nation to misread, and misunderstand these data.

Though these sorts of tests provide a broad representation of student populations in several nations, he said, the results often fail to account for important variables such as poverty, demographics, and the academic standing of students. For example, where U.S. schools might test a broad cross-section of students, other nations might decide to test only their most academically accomplished students, making it difficult to provide realistic comparisons of academic proficiency.

And there are other variables, too, he said. Researchers also have to take into consideration the fact that different nations have different definitions and interpretations of terms used to describe student progress such as “mastery” and “highly-skilled.”

As an example of this disconnect, Bracey cited a popular statistic used to feed the perception that colleges in developing nations such as India and China are churning out more high-quality engineers and other technical graduates than modern U.S. institutions.

Though these and other developing nations are no doubt making strides to become more competitive, Bracey said, the perception that the U.S. is struggling to keep up isn’t necessarily true.

Though reports have said that China pumps out as many as 650,000 engineers a year and India 300,000, compared to a mere 60,000 from U.S. institutions, Bracey said, the reality is that students graduating from academic programs in developing nations often don’t enter the workforce armed with the same high-quality skills as U.S. graduates.

In some countries, he said, what might amount to a bachelor’s degree might not even qualify as an associate’s degree at a comparative U.S.-based institution.

Bracey said students who might call themselves engineers in China and India would probably be classified as basic “technicians” under current U.S. standards.

“It doesn’t translate well,” he said of the comparison. The reality is that “[U.S. schools] are doing much better than their critics say, and, in some cases, are doing much, much better than they ever have,” he said.

Though schooling no doubt is a necessary ingredient for successful human development and growth, Bracey says how well students perform in the classroom isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a nation’s economic future.

“Education, as it turns out, is not nearly as important to economic competitiveness as educators would like to think,” Bracey told the audience. Rather, he says, more in-depth research from international organizations such as the Global Economic Forum place a greater emphasis on other elements, including physical infrastructure, security, efficiency, human capital, market size, health, and perhaps most importantly, innovation.

When you take these and other factors into consideration, as researchers for the World Economic Forum did as part of its 2005-06 “Global Competitiveness Report,” Bracey said, evidence shows that, despite widespread criticisms, “The United States remains the most competitive nation in the world.”

But, as he pointed out, that doesn’t necessarily mean the current education system has students headed in the right direction. “If nothing else, I think No Child Left Behind is destined to fail simply for its sole reliance on test scores,” Bracey added.

When trying to determine whether a child is equipped to become a productive member of a global economy, he said, a test built to measure how well someone comprehends a particular discipline or skill says little about their ability to contribute to society.

What these standards-based tests can’t measure are those rare, intangible qualities such as resilience, persistence, endurance, enthusiasm, and humility, he saidall attributes which are liable to affect how a student copes with the stress and uncertainty of day-to-day life.

An outspoken opponent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Bracey called the oft-criticized law “a one-size-fits-all approach to education” and said its focus on testing and standards is likely “moving us in the wrong direction.”

Not unlike other critics, Bracey believes NCLB is misguided in that it seeks to measure the progress of students by focusing on grade-level achievement, rather than tracking the individual progress of students through the school system year over year.


American Association of School Administrators

eSchool News Staff

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