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July 10, 2014 12:00 PM Stop Blaming the High Schools

By Daniel Luzer

Americans have been thinking for quite some time that the country’s education system doesn’t really work out so well. Our high school graduation rate is too low. Our college graduation rate is too low. Even college graduates don’t seem to do very well when compared to college graduates in other countries.

But what’s really the source of the problem here? According to this piece over at Vox, maybe it’s not the colleges responsible for the problem. As writer Libby Nelson put it:

American students are starting college farther behind than students in better-educated countries.
American students get about average scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment, the international test used to measure the skills of 15-year-olds globally.
Meanwhile, Korean and Finnish students end high school ahead of American students, as measured by the OECD’s tests, and also graduate from college in high numbers. So it’s no surprise that their college graduates rank higher than our do. Asking American colleges to make up the difference isn’t entirely fair.

This is interesting, but it’s sort of glossing over the real problem here.

Sure, it’s true that American high school students “start off” below their international peers, but it’s not really clear what this means about education quality. Do our schools cause this problem? Nelson moves in an interesting direction with this one, suggesting that maybe our secondary schools just aren’t very good:

This is a well-understood, if controversial, concept in K-12 education. Teachers are increasingly judged based not just on students’ standardized test scores, but on how students are performing relative to expectations. So a teacher with a classroom full of fifth-graders who do math at a third-grade level might be rewarded, not punished, if those students had started the year at a first-grade level. They haven’t caught up yet, but teaching two full years of math in one academic year is a pretty amazing achievement.

It does, perhaps, make sense to assess teachers based on how far they’ve moved students in the course of a year, but that probably wouldn’t get us any closer to educational parity with other developed nations. Just measuring how much “value” teachers add would cause them to add sufficient value to bring the country up to other nations.

The problem is that using PISA as evidence of the mediocrity of America’s schools is that PISA is measure of all students. And America’s numbers are a lot worse that those of industrialized countries because we have a lot more poor kids, who bring down the average.

Nelson points out that “higher education in other countries is so different that in some cases making a comparison valid would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.” This is true in the case of many countries, but PISA is just an assessment of children’s knowledge and skills, and comparisons are very appropriate.

It’s not about the schools; it’s about the kids we’re putting into them.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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