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?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

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