One of the “facts” about American education that is repeated often by politicians and education “experts” is that our students are pretty lousy compared to the rest of the world when it comes to learning math and science.
However, according to one writer in Business Week, there’s more to that judgement than just simple statistics.
Yet a new report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, tells a different story. The report disproves many confident pronouncements about the alleged weaknesses and failures of the U.S. education system. This data will certainly be examined by both sides in the debate over highly skilled workers and immigration. The argument by Microsoft, Google, Intel, and others is that there are not enough tech workers in the U.S.
The authors of the report, the Urban Institute’s Hal Salzman and Georgetown University professor Lindsay Lowell, show that math, science, and reading test scores at the primary and secondary level have increased over the past two decades, and U.S. students are now close to the top of international rankings. Perhaps just as surprising, the report finds that our education system actually produces more science and engineering graduates than the market demands.
So, why are all these politicians and business leaders reading the same test scores and getting different conclusions? According to the lead researcher, they are misinterpreting the data.
In fact, the few countries that place higher than the U.S. are generally small nations, and few of these rank consistently high across all grades, subjects, and years tested. Moreover, he says, serious methodological flaws, such as different test populations, and other limitations preclude drawing any meaningful comparison of school systems between countries.
One study is not enough to put to rest the popular myth that all US students rank at the bottom of the international barrel.
And it certainly lead anyone to the conclusion that we don’t need to improve math and science education in this country.
But this is just one more reminder that there’s much more to learning than scores on a standardized test.