Thursday, December 9, 2010

PISA vs. the "Race to Nowhere"

Recently, the NYTimes ran two much-discussed articles about education: In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts, and Parents Embrace "Race to Nowhere", on Pressures of School.

One of the comments on the "Race to Nowhere" article asked "Are our schools falling behind compared to, say, Shanghai? Or are our schools pressure cookers with teachers having too high standards?"

My answer is "both". I don't doubt for a moment that the Shanghai kids are better educated than American kids, especially in math. At the same time, there is way too much pressure in nominally high-performing American schools today.

How is this possible? Because pressure from schools, and hours of work on the part of students, don't necessarily equal learning. If the curriculum is shallow and incoherent, and the classes have too many kids, and the teachers are poorly educated themselves, hard work is just a waste of time. The hamster can run faster and faster on his wheel, but he still won't get anywhere.

I especially liked this comment, from "ivyj":

My girls, now in high school, are the product of relatively decent California public schools and I strongly believe the main cause of my girls' stress (my daughter also had stomach problems due to school) is the extreme amount of homework assigned by teachers, starting in the elementary grades. I noticed teachers spent a lot of time doing fun activities during the day (working in the garden, playing games), then sent the more arduous tasks home so the parents could crack the whip and do the teaching. This started in kindergarten and continued into middle school. For example, my daughters had to log their reading every night and write book reports every week for two straight years - prior to this, they read for the joy of reading, but their teachers managed to kill that joy in their zeal to make sure everyone could read and write.


  1. Did you notice, in the article on Shanghai, that the second highest science scores were in Finland -- where homework and testing are downplayed, and school hours are shorter?

    In general, I think there's a lot of irony in these articles. So much concern about science and math scores, and such an unscientific, unskeptical approach to evaluating the conclusions of these studies. (The article, for example, points out several explanations for why the Shanghai student population may be atypical and the tests may be gamed; yet the Bush administration bureaucrat considers "the accuracy of these results to be unassailable.")

    You can't help but wonder whether the preference for emulating autocratic governments like China and Singapore, rather than democratic governments like Finland, is explained by something other than test scores and empirical studies.

  2. Chris -- You're exactly right. It's easier to emulate the autocratic systems because excellent democratic systems, such as Finland's, require money--eg, a truly progressive tax system. Yet you have Obama extending Bush's tax cuts for the super-rich! Even in Canada, taxation levels for the very rich are substantially lower than they were in the post-war years and throughout the 70s. Since the 1980s, revenue from taxes has steadily declined so that we can no longer maintain our once well-funded educational institutions (this applies to post-secondary education as well, which is primarily public in Canada). That is why here, as in the US, you have billionaires stepping in to make up the funding deficit. But the problem with that "solution" is, once you have private money, you lose public (democratic) control. There's a great new book on this very subject: The Trouble with Billionaires by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks. It mostly deals with the Canadian situation, but a lot of what the authors have to say applies to the US as well, especially since we tend to follow your lead when it comes to taxation (and other) policies--presumably to remain "competitive."

  3. OK, I was going to stay away from politics (ha!), but I found a great comment (from "rt") to a Paul Krugman op-ed about Obama's deal with the Repubs to extend Bush's tax cuts:

    To me, it seemed analogous to a husband waking up in the morning, deciding to go out and buy a new car, being snake-oiled by a fast-talking car salesman, ending up with a lousy deal and a car with 3 wheels and one headlight and then taking the car home to show his wife while trying to tell her what a sweet deal he got. I think most wives would be less than understanding, and rightfully so are the House Democrats, along with liberals like me.