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The pros and cons of U.S. education

“If these numbers are not that dismal … then policy can be more accurately focused and less reactionary,” said one reader.

As President Obama enters his second term, his education policies are sure to be in the spotlight again soon.

But are international tests, which help to influence education policies in the U.S., as accurate as we thought? And what, if anything, can we learn from other countries?

A report from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that well-respected international tests have misranked the achievement of U.S. students, meaning federal and state leaders have based their education policies on misleading data.

And in a recent column, Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), discussed his trip to Russia to learn more about education in that nation. Though Russian students generally appear more disciplined and “full of rote knowledge that comes in handy when being tested,” Domenech notes that “they lack the independent thinking and creativity that is a hallmark of our system of education.”

Both stories have prompted tremendous response from readers, who have expressed their own opinions about the strengths and challenges of U.S. education. Here’s a roundup of what readers have had to say—from what the U.S. can learn from Russia to the implications of EPI’s report.

(Next page: Comparing U.S. education with that of other countries)

Teachers are more well-regarded abroad

“International professional development helps to keep teachers sane, especially if they feel weighed down with testing and league tables, which is equally the case for many of our teachers in the U.K. as it is for colleagues in the U.S.A. I attended a conference in London recently, where a guest from Finland spoke confidently but modestly about the great successes of their schools, in a country where children do not start formal school until the age of six and where teachers are highly respected, highly qualified, rewarded well, and encouraged to develop professionally throughout their careers. Let’s keep learning from each other!” —Ken Walsh, associate consultant, Cambridge Education

U.S. parents must take a greater role

“Interesting until you mentioned ‘subsidizing’; once again, the answer is always ‘more money.’ However, we are at an all-time high on money spent per pupil, yet results are worse. Prime example: In Georgia, the lottery funds preschool [read: free day care], and any threat to cut funding rolls out the usual ‘experts’ with a financial interest in keeping the dollars flowing, yet after billions of dollars and 20 years of free preschool, graduation rates have barely moved, dropouts are the same, college remediation is a travesty, and test scores are still among the worst in the U.S. The only solution to improving education is when parents make education important at home!” —irishmafia116

Discipline an issue in U.S. schools

“One of the key things I noted was that the children were well-behaved. That cannot be said in my American school, and administration puts that problem squarely on the teacher. I shudder to think what our test scores will look like this year with the students running around out of control.” —lbriggs864

U.S. schools aim to treat all students equally

“It seems that the European model is far more separatist at first glance, [meaning] students are separated at a much earlier age and pushed in a direction the administrators feel they will serve most appropriately, i.e., labor or profession. Access to education appears more favored towards economic and social class, based on some of my readings. In essence, the U.S. has an ‘equal opportunity’ education structure in primary and secondary public education, regardless of race, creed, gender, religion, socio-economics, disability, or political affiliation. The U.S. may not rank  No. 1 in academic outcomes, but we do rank  No. 1 in our ability to educate everyone [who] enters the main lobby of our public education institutions.” —Gary Beulah, Soft Blue LLC

Education policies must be based on accurate information

Reaction among readers to the EPI report was mixed, though most readers agree that sound policy making depends on a more accurate diagnosis of the problems it’s trying to fix…

“So we as U.S. educators are to be satisfied because we’re doing OK? How are our competitors doing? As long as they’re doing about the same, that’s all we care, though we know we can do so much better—quite possibly with the resources already available. Why should we be satisfied with this result?” —jcbjr

“My take as an educator was, we are that much closer to No. 1. Now we need to strive to figure out how to make it happen.” —willbucks

“Looks like another attempt to avoid the reality of our continued decline in student achievement, especially relative to the gain in other countries. I am an old guy, near 70, and remember that when I went to high school much more was required and learned than today.” —edlyell835

“The real message is that U.S. educational policy may be misguided and overreacting. The original numbers paint a dismal picture, one that prompts a quick, perhaps ‘knee-jerk’ reaction and one that shouts, ‘Crisis!’ If these numbers are not that dismal … then policy (and strategic planning) can be more accurately focused and less reactionary. That makes for a better response, one that truly addresses a realistic picture of the problem.” —atessmer

“I believe the intention of the report was simply to show that data can be misleading, as is the case in the PISA data. In this case, data from the PISA was not disaggregated by socio-economic status (i.e. free or reduced lunch). Research consistently has shown that socioeconomic status affects school performance. In addition, the data fails to report gains made regarding disadvantaged learners. In the end, that is what educators really want to know about. Who is making gains and who is not. That is how we can determine how to proceed with our instruction.” —ltillinghast96

“I don’t find a single statement in the text that suggests we should be satisfied with the results. Rather, the message is that misinterpretation of data could well result in misguided policy decisions. Certainly, many have used the rankings to criticize public education as a whole, with the achievement gap being an area of focus. It turns out that the U.S. is better in both of those measures, and it can’t hurt to give credit where credit is due. Educators might say a little good news is overdue.” —prhamilt

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