Jeb Bush’s Math/Science Claim American Teens Falling Behind : Mostly False

Creative Commons Minds on Science by Jack Hassard is licensed under CC BY 3.0 US
Creative Commons Minds on Science by Jack Hassard is licensed under CC BY 3.0 US

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (AJC) Truth-O-Meter did a check on Jeb Bush’s claim that U.S. teenagers have fallen behind their international counterparts in math and science as reported last year by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

His speech was given May 12th at a dinner at the Manhattan Institute (where all conservatives speak their mind) in New York.  Bush’s talk about education is a stump speech that he’ll use for the next two years if he runs for President.  Bush, however, is in the company of Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, the Walton’s, the Fordham Institute, and Achieve (publisher of standards in math, science, and language arts), and they each agree that there is something wrong with the teaching of math and science in the United States.  And they have the plan and money to get it on track.

The article in the AJC on the state of math and science education got my attention.  However I had no idea that this story would uncover the 50-state plan Bush’s foundation has designed to influence American education, and how the wealthy get richer, and think they are entitled to tell the rest us what kind of education is best for us (but not them).

Bush is another politician who uses and interprets data for his own ends.  Bush makes a lot of money going around the country advising local governments and corporations about his “reform agenda,” which is spelled out in his organization, Foundation for Excellence in Education.  Bush is chairman and founder. Its top donors are Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Helmesley Charitable Trust, and Walton Family Foundation.

In a recent Vanity Fair article, author Kia Makarechi suggested that Jeb Bush might be making too much money to bother running for President.  (According to Makerechi’s article Bush earns $3.2 million from board positions, charges $50,000 per speech, and got more than $1 million from Barclays).

In the Manhattan Institute after-dinner-speech, Bush told the conservative audience that “there is nothing more critical to our economic security than a full transformation of our educational system and the latest results only confirm the urgency of our charge.”  And of course he has a plan.

Bush says that US teenagers have fallen behind many countries, including Ireland, Poland, and Vietnam in math and science.  He used PISA data to say that between 2003 and 2012 the U.S. “flatlined” while other countries made more progress.  Then, this very wealthy man challenges anyone who might suggest that poverty has anything to do with academic learning, and disses anyone who might bring poverty into the conversation.  Basically, he’s saying, “get over it.”

His speech goes on to tell the conservative dinner guests that we (Bush) have proven reforms—just look to Florida.  He said we need education that has more accountability, more choice, no more social promotion, raises the bar, and makes students career and college ready.

Now, if you go to his Foundation for Excellence for Education website, you will quickly learn why he goes around the country repeating the mantra that American kids are falling behind in math and science.

At his site, there is a clickable map of the U.S. of Bush’s education reforms (Figure 1).  These are copied from and embedded in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind act (2001) and Duncan’s Race to the Top Fund (2009).

What is Bush’s education reform?:  It’s privatization. Online digital learning. Corporate management style 101.  Standardization.  High-stakes testing.  Charter schools. Turnaround schools.  VAM.

Figure 1. Bush Reform Agenda Categories. Source: Foundation for Excellence in Education website.
Figure 1. Bush Reform Agenda Categories. Source: Foundation for Excellence in Education website.

Bush’s Education Reform Categories

  • Ccr: College and Career Readiness
  • dl: Digital Learning
  • Etl: Effective Teachers and Leaders
  • K3r: K-3 Reading
  • Obf: Outcome-Based Funding
  • Sc: School Choice
  • Sa: Standards and Accountability

If you click on a state map, none or one or more of these reform categories are shown.  For example when I clicked on Georgia, where I live, three categories appear, Digital Learning, Effective Teachers and Leaders, and School Choice.  Click on the + sign, and state legislation related to the category is revealed as shown in Figure 2.

Bush has collaborated with Georgia legislators to provide model legislation (just as does the American Legislative Exchange Council–ALEC).  Click on this link, to find out how legislation in your state is connected to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Figure 2. Georgia Legislation (circled in red) related to Digital Learning influenced by the Foundation for Excellence. Source: Foundation for Excellence in Education website.
Figure 2. Georgia Legislation (circled in red) related to Digital Learning influenced by the Foundation for Excellence. Source: Foundation for Excellence in Education website.

Are American Teens Falling Behind in Math and Science?

Let’s return to the claim made by Bush that American teens are falling behind their counterparts in math and science. People like Bush benefit when things that look bad to him, are actually very good for him.  To say that schools are failing, or that teens are not up to it when it comes to math and science falls right into his and other reformer’s hands.  And they do this by using average scores of students, without looking any further into the nature of the data.

The truth is that American students’ scores have been stable for more than decade, and that even though American students have never done well on international standardized tests, American students are actually doing very well.  I’ve shown this in Figure 3.  Notice that the scores for US students and for OECD overall are on par, and persistent over time.

Figure 3. US PISA Scores Compared to OECD Average, Highest Scoring & Lowest Scoring Nations.  Data: PISA 2013
Figure 3. US PISA Scores Compared to OECD Average, Highest Scoring & Lowest Scoring Nations. Data: PISA 2013

Bush, like his cronies, including Gates, Duncan, Rhee, & Kopp use academic data—national and international–to paint a picture of doom and gloom.  Meanwhile they are living the high life, and have the audacity to claim that poverty has nothing to do academic performance.

In Figure 3, the countries that score the highest in math and science are nearly all Asian, except for Finland. The countries whose score in math is lower than the OECD average are Middle Eastern and South American.

Nearly all the countries that hover near the OECD average with the U.S. (including England, Germany, France, Spain, Australia, New Zealnd, Norway), embody what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlburg calls the Global Education Reform Model (GERM).

GERM is systematically being spread across U.S. state boarders. GERM symptoms are infecting schools east and west, north and south. No region is resistant to this infection.

Symptoms of the Bush’s strain of GERM include the

  • Common Core
  • Standardization
  • Vouchers
  • Charter schools run by charter management companies
  • Measures of Academic Performance MAP)
  • State level high- stakes tests
  • PARCC & SMARTER Assessments
  • The use of algorithms based student test-scores to rate teachers.

Two or more of these symptoms spells trouble for many educators, but is a success story of Bush’s Foundation of Excellence in Education.

Ignore the Data, Focus on Power

Cathy O’Neil over on mathbabe says it best: ignore the data, focus on power.

When I read her post today in the context of Bush’s claim about using PISA data for his own ends, I realized that Dr. O’Neil’s analysis “shines a light on powerful people,” such as Bush.  She hits it on the head, when she said this:

I guess my point is this. Data and data modeling are not magical tools. They are in fact crude tools, and so to focus on them is misleading and distracting from the real show, which is always about power (and/or money). It’s a boondoggle to think about data when we should be thinking about when and how a model is being wielded and who gets to decide.  (O’Neil, C, mathbabe, “Ignore Data, focus on power,” May 20, 2014, Extracted May 20, 2014)

Who should decide how data is analysed? Who decides what data is collected?

Bush’s ‘s claim about the state of math and science in American schools is biased in favor of his own agenda, and does not reflect the nature of math and science teaching and learning.

Math and science education in the U.S. produces more people who write patents, publish scientific articles, create new and innovative ideas, write more books…I could go on.

Well, what do you think?  Is Bush using data for his own ends, or his he, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution claim, mostly right?

Who Benefits When Student PISA Scores Decline?

What’s bad for you might be good for others. In fact, in the world of international tests, American student’s scoring low on the recent PISA test is actually very good for business, profiteers, think tanks, and those who think America’s schools are failing.  Using average scores, the US was ranked 30 in maths, 20 in reading, and 23 in science, a downward trend that plays into the hands of the “doom and gloom” education naysayers.  In this post I want to argue that using PISA tests to evaluate a nation’s educational system is not only unscientific, but the conclusions that are reached and “solutions” proposed lack the wisdom needed to support teaching and learning.

Zooming In on the PISA Data

If you look at Figure 1, it seems that student test scores are in decline from 2009 to 2012.  In math student scores plunged 6 points, a 1.2% drop in the average score of American students.  In reading, the scores dropped 0.4%, and in science scores slumped 0.9% from 2009 to 2012.  To leaders at Achieve, a company that stands to benefit from “failing schools” based on such plummeting scores.  The PISA results are just the ticket to further their claim that American schools need to be fixed, and they are ready to do the job.  Achieve wrote the Common Core, and the Next Generation Science Standards.  Between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Race to the Top, millions of dollars are being pumped into the implementation of the these two sets of standards.  When these three entities look at Figure 1, they interpret the results using an ideological framework based on an authoritarian standards-based and data driven model.  Although the U.S. has had standards in place in all the states during the period shown in the graph, Achieve, Gates, and Duncan (AGD) claim that an important step to fix the American school problem is the adoption of the Common Core.

The Brown Center Report on American Education (2012) showed that standards (whether they were good or bad) have had no affect on changing student achievement scores measured by NAEP, which many researchers consider a much more powerful measure of student learning in American classrooms.  Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality nor the rigor of state standards was not correlated with NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards in place since 2003.

Yet AGD would have us believe that implementing a new set of standards in American schools will cause momentous change in student achievement.


Figure 1. PISA Scores for American 15 year-olds, 2000 - 2012
Figure 1. PISA Scores for American 15 year-olds, 2000 – 2012

Zooming Out

What happens if we zoom out and look at the data from a different perspective.  Figure 2 compares US PISA scores in math, reading and science with the OECD average for all nations that participated in the PISA tests from 2000 – 2012.  In this case, I used a scale that would also include the scores of highest and lowest scoring nation for the years that PISA was administered.  When you look at American scores over the past dozen years, they seem as a flat line in the same place as the average scores posted by all nations.  In fact it is difficult to distinguish one score from another.

The naysayers look at this data and claim that the sky is falling, and that if we don’t fix American education, our students will not be able to compete with students from the “highest scoring” nations.  Not only that, if this trend continues, it will affect the nation’s economy.  Both of these conclusions are simply not supported in the research literature.  They are nothing more than political and authoritarian ideology.

American student scores on international tests are predictable and sustainable.  But, because the reformers such as Achieve, Gates and Duncan use a market and business strategy that compels schools to increase student achievement EVERY year, and if teachers don’t fulfill this ridiculous goal, their jobs will be jeopardized.  Schools risk being closed, or taken over by private charter corporations.  If you don’t believe me, please read any one of my posts on Georgia’s Race to the Top to discover how the money is spent, how the state has developed questionable  relationship with charter companies, Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.

The graph in Figure 2  actually shows how stable is American education.  But the doom and gloom naysayers use the graph to warn Americans that we are losing the global competition war, much like the Cold War.  In fact, much of the reasoning used today to claim American education is “behind” other advanced nations is very similar to the claims made during the Sputnik Era, the Cold War and the Race for Space.  During that period, according to scientists, our education system was antiquated, and lacked the rigor needed for Americans to understand science, mathematics and technology.  (For a full discussion of this, please see Scientists in the Classroom by John L. Rudolph (Library Copy). When the “nation was at risk,” during the 1980s, it was the economies of Germany and Japan that posed a threat to America.  The threat today is from those nations that score high on international tests, such as PISA.


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These tests do not measure what many in America consider important goals of education, including creativity, social skills of communications and collaboration, interdependence, and being innovative.  In her newest book, Nel Noddings questions those who consider that American schools are failing.  She reminds us that comparing scores from different nations does not take into account differences in these countries.  In fact, if we do compare countries that are alike, we find that their scores are similar.  She suggests that we should not obsess over international scores.  She says:

We are now in the 21st century, and it is time to reduce the emphasis on competition. Cooperation will be a major theme throughout this book. We are living in a global community— that is, we are trying to build such a community— and the keywords now are collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity. This does not mean that there should be no more competition; some competition is both necessary and healthy, and it often promotes better products and performances. But in the 21st-century world, collaboration is the new watchword. People must work together to preserve the Earth and to promote the welfare of all its inhabitants.  Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25). Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (pp. 1-2). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition. (Library Copy)

International test scores do not measure interdependence and social skills, nor do they measure innovation.  They measure factual knowledge.  PISA claims to measure students’ ability to apply knowledge, yet the test questions are not localized, and remain outside any kind of context that would be meaningful to students.  Relying on international test scores to measure a nation’s academic abilities is a dead-end.

In Diane Ravitch’s book (Library Copy), The Reign of Error, she references research done by Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education.  In his research, he raised question including “Are international tests worth anything?  Do they predict the future of a nation’s economy?  Ravitch reports that Baker reviewed data going back to 1964 to answer these questions. Ravitch reported on his research and this is what she said:

Baker looked at per capita gross domestic product of the nations whose students competed in 1964. He found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth— the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” The rate of economic growth improved, he held, as test scores dropped. There was no relationship between a nation’s productivity and its test scores. Nor did high test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or livability, and the lower-scoring nations in the assessment were more successful at achieving democracy than those with higher scores.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 1500-1505). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

We’re Number 1

There is an incessant want in this country to be number 1, and in education, international tests such as PISA, and TIMSS give the arena for the competitions to take place.  Unfortunately, using student test scores to set up league tables listing the “highest performing” nations in decreasing order toward the “lowest performing” nations creates an aura of competition that is unfortunate to our wish to help students learn.  Nel Noddings provides a powerful summary of this idea.  She says:

Recently, President Obama advised— to considerable applause— that we (the United States) must out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. This is an example of 20th-century thinking that many of us believe must be put behind us. From one perspective, we are urged to reclaim the ways that, in the 20th century, made us great. From a second perspective, those ways are thought to be dangerous. Habits of domination, insistence on being “number one,” evangelical zeal to convert the world to our form of democracy, all belong to the days of empire. In the 21st century, without deriding the accomplishments of the 20th century, we must vow not to repeat the horrors of war that accompanied our rise to world power; it is time to recover from the harm done by such thinking and look ahead to an age of cooperation, communication (genuine dialogue), and critical open-mindedness.  Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25). Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (p. 2). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

What is your interpretation of the PISA data as shown in the graphs in Figures 1 and 2?

Shanghai-China, Canada, Chile and Liechtenstein Head to the PISA Finals

Shanghai, Canada, Chile and Liechtenstein Head to the PISA Finals.

Suppose the PISA nations were organized into leagues and to follow the tradition of the sports world,  a final competition would be held in February 2014, to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Russia.

Why these four countries?  Shanghai is an obvious choice.  Shanghai-China had the highest scores of all nations on maths (613), reading (570) and science (580).  So, if there were going to be a “jeopardy” type finals based on the 2013 PISA scores, Shanghai-China would be seeded number one.  But why the other three countries?  Why Canada, Chile and Liechtenstein?  None of these countries scored in the top dozen countries on PISA 2013.  So, what’s going on here?

I organized the nations that participated in the PISA 2013 international test into four conferences.  Using the well established method of the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association, four PISA conferences emerge as follows:

  • Eastern Conference
  • Western Conference
  • Southern Conference
  • Northern Conference

When the nations are organized into these four leagues, at the top of the leader board in each league are the following nations: Shanghai-China (Eastern), Canada (Western League), Chile (Southern League), and Liechtenstein (Northern League).  Disclaimer:  I did not include all the nations that participated in the PISA 2013.  But those that I did include are clearly representative of each “conference”

Take a look at the league standings as organized into these four conferences.  Does this organization tell us anything that we didn’t know before this filtering of the nations into these divisions?

Eastern Conference

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 8.06.28 PMNo surprises here, except when you dig deeper and ask why these countries do so well on international tests.  All of these countries scored above the OECD average. According to Yong Zhao, we need to keep in mind that Asian education systems have always done well on international tests.  Dr. Zhao is very skeptical of the Asian success on tests such as PISA because “they are very poisonous.”  He reminds us that the Asian formula for success is based on four ideas: competition, standardization, frequent testing, and privatization.  Indeed, these are the “symptoms” of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which according to Pasi Sahlberg, are basic elements of reform in England and the United States.  And according to Sahlberg, GERM has behaved like a virus, spreading around the world.  We’ll see ahead, how GERM is spreading into the Southern Conference of nations.

Western Conference

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 7.45.43 PMThe Western Conference includes nations from the “Western Hemisphere.” Four of the Western Conference nations scored above the OECD average in maths, reading, and science.  The angst that appears every three years among these nations plays out in the newspaper, and when the secretary or commissioner of each nation’s education department speaks to the public. As some researchers have pointed out (Carnoy and Rothstein, 2013), the reasons countries do well or not so well are complicated.  Much of the difference in scores can be attributed to non-school factors such family income, poverty level, books in the home, health care, and so forth.  The difference between the top performing nation in the Western conference and lowest performing nation is 37 points (maths), 48 (reading), and 39 (science).

As Carnoy and Rothstein (2013) point out, if countries like the U.S. had social class compositions similar to that of the leading nations on the PISA test, the U.S. would move up in the Western Conference almost to the top.

In fact as shown in this graphic, if PISA scores were reported on the basis of poverty level, e.g., less than 10%, or between 10 – 24%, or between 25 – 49%, the scores would look very different as shown in the graphic below.

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Figure 1. Graphic from the AFT video, What Does the PISA Report Tell Us About U.S. Education. (

Southern Conference

If we look at nations in the Southern Conference, Chile leads the rankings.  Although these countries scored below the OECD average, the same issues that face Western Conference nations apply to the Southern Conference.  There is a need to give equitable education to all students.  Reports on an analysis of PISA data, GDP per capita correlates with performance in mathematics.  For example, nation’s whose GDP per capita ranged from $15,000 – $19,000 scored below the OECD average.  Follow this link to an interactive graph showing these results as indicated below.

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Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 7.47.14 PM Figure 2.  Mathematics score versus GDP per Capita on 2013 PISA. Source: Sedghi, A, Arnett, G, and Chalabi, M. “Pisa 2012 results: which country does best at reading, maths, and science? The Guardian, December 3, 2013.


Northern Conference

Northern Europe and Scandinavia include many nations that have traditionally done well on the PISA tests.  However, if you were to read the headlines in newspapers of these countries, especially Finland, Norway and Sweden, you would think that the sky is falling.  In the case of Finland, which has typically been at the top of the PISA charts, it fell a few places in the rankings.  But many educators, such as Johann C. Fuhrmann, and Norbet Beckmann-Dierkes, explain how Finland has created an educational system that is NOT based on standards and high stakes testing, but on centering education on equity, health care, and teacher autonomy.  These are characteristics that are in short supply around the world.  Most countries believe that a central and standardized curriculum is in the best interests of all students.  They also believe that accountability should be visible by means of market and corporate strategies, and that teachers should be evaluated by their students’ learning.

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So, there you have it.  A look at the PISA results through four lenses.  Is it possible that we can learn more about education by examining the nature of schooling from different points of view, and through different cultures and situations.  What do you think?

Moving Beyond the Drama and Hyperbole that Dominate International Test Score Results

Moving Beyond the Drama and Hyperbole that Dominate International Test Score Results. The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles the 2013 PISA international test results.  In this post I want to focus on the article written by Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg entitled, PISA 2012 scores show the failure of ‘market based’ education reform (Sahlberg, Pasi, 2013). Sahlberg is Director General of International Centre at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki.  He has written extensively about educational improvement and enhancing equity as the focus of improving education. Dr. Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not an proper use of international test results, in this case PISA. As I’ve reported many times on this blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or the inability of its students to compete in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well last week.  Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said that for the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

Global Educational Reform

But Dr. Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM).  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by standardization (Common Core), core subjects (math, reading, science), teaching to the test, corporate management style, and test-based accountability.  When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.” Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

Non-Global Education Reform

But Sahlberg, if he were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, would not suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead Dr. Sahlberg would suggest that the standard-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.  Disclaimer: There are many organizations, groups, individual educators and policy makers in nations that are infected by GERM who oppose these market-based reforms, and suggest that equity must be at the center of educational reform). According to Sahlberg, a school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)
Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Beyond GERM

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science. 3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools. 4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal government. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.  As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her new book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century,

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).


Sahlberg, Pasi. “The PISA 2012 Scores Show the Failure of ‘market Based’ Education Reform.” Guardian News and Media, 08 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. “A Picture of Educational Stagnation’: Study Finds US Teen Students Lagging.” Guardian News and Media, 03 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25). Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 103-107). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Does High Stakes Testing Produce Students Who are “Study Machines?”

Does High Stakes Testing Produce Students Who are “Study Machines?”

According to Emma Vanbergen, Shangahi-based study abroad director for BE Education, a company that places Chinese students in British schools and universities, it’s not surprising that Shanghai students are rated at the top of PISA World League Standings.

Why does she think so?

She says that the city schools are the most competitive in a country (China) where getting high scores on exams is the goal of education.

She indicates that the only measure that schools use to enable students to gain entry to the next level of education is a test score.  Nothing else.

Where is Shanghai?  Find the red dot.  It represents about 1.7 of the Chinese population.
Where is Shanghai? Find the red dot. It represents about 1.7 of the Chinese population.

And the higher rank of a school, the more difficult it is for students to meet the entrance requirement (test score).  She explains, that starting at a very young age, students go to school “in an endless cycle of learning, preparing for, and taking exams.

Because of her role in placing students for study abroad experiences in British schools and universities, she has some insight into the nature of Shanghai students.  Not surprisingly she says that the best students, that is those that carry around the top scores on achievement tests, are “not in fact super clever, great thinkers, or future academics.”

She says that

They are simply extremely hard-working study machines who memorize and churn out answers for tests in minutes.  They spend all their time on study, revision, homework, “pre-study” (a term I’d never encountered  until arriving in China), learning test techniques, and taking practice papers.”  (Edmma Vanbergen, Comments & Features, The Daily Telegraph, December 5, 2013)

According to Ms. Vanbergen, parents and teachers conspire inadvertently by bearing any cost to make sure their children get what is needed to score high marks on tests, and teachers are forced into the system because of the incentive of the “pay-for-student performance” for bonuses and promotions.

In China, the curriculum focuses on mathematics, science, Chinese and English.  Other subjects such as history, the arts, physical education, and the social sciences are not emphasized.  Chinese education is geared to the PISA exams, which test only mathematics, science and reading (English).

Ms. Vanbergen also tells us that the students who stay in school at age 15 in Shanghai schools are the best test takers.  Perhaps this sets them up for super performance on the triennial PISA tests.

She also reminds us that Shanghai is not representative of the system of Chinese education.  In her view, she says:

The super competitive, overpopulated, high-pressure nature of the schools, coupled with the significant financial backing of test-fixated parents, means students are conditioned from a young age to out-perform the competition in tests.  In that one respect–outperforming the majority of the world’s students in tests, in this case PISA–the system is clearly a great success.  (Emma Vanbergen, Comments & Features, The Daily Telegraph, December 5, 2013)

According to American newspapers and articles on blogs such as Education Week, US education stalls as other nations make gains.  In the eyes of the American press, and officials at the US Department of Education (ED), there is an even greater need for the standards-based test oriented curriculum of the Common Core.

If we are to accept the analysis of Ms. Vanbergen, then the solution to high scores on tests such as PISA is to turn students into “Study Machines.”

Is this the aim of an education in a democracy?  What do you think?