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?

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?


PISA Testing in the Year 2063: Fives Walk to School on Thursday

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Note: This is a letter written by a teen living in Atlanta in the year 2063.   Her name is Sklyer F., a 14 year-old girl living in Atlanta with her family—3 brothers, her father who home schools his children, and her mother who is an activist-independent-politician. 

The PISA test, developed by the OECD, is in its 100th year, and is now used by all nations of world to assess the performance of students.  The test has been shortened so that each student can be assessed in reading, mathematics, and science.  

What has been the effect of the PISA World League Competitions fifty years out from the 2013 release of PISA findings?

Dear Friends:

I learned that in America, in the year 2001, the Federal Government enacted the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that required each state in the country to develop tests in mathematics and reading, but over time, the policy makers decided that science and history should also be tested.  Then, in 2009, the Department of Education created a national competition called The Race to the Top.   It pushed further the control of local schools by insisting on a common curriculum and mandatory exams.  As you know, this annual testing event became known as “The Testing Games,” a kind of spin off of the 2012 movie, “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins.  Every year kids compete in a series of tests that take on a professional sports type of mentality with league standings and tables.

It’s now 2063 and we’ve elected our first woman president, Maya Armstrong Fusaro, an independent candidate from Georgia. People are very optimistic because of President Fusaro’s political philosophy, especially with regards to economics, education and equity, and ideas about the environment.  Although we had another great recession eight years ago, we are on the road to recovery, much like what happened in your day.

But, right now things are much different than you might realize compared to 2013.

Life in 2063

trainLet me tell you a bit about my life in the year 2053.

Let me introduce myself.  My name is Skyler, and my number that I use for identification purposes is 897502415.    I am 14 years old and I live in the United States in a very large southern city.  It’s very crowed in the urban areas of the U.S., so much so, that parents have been asked to either home school their children, or enroll them in online schools.  There is simply not enough room in our schools.

The students who do go to schools come from very well-to-do families.

I do most of my studies online from my room in our apartment, and my father also helps us (I have three brothers) as a home school teacher.  There are so many courses to choose from, you simply can’t believe it. But, as my father keeps reminding me, I have to take courses that will prepare me for high-stakes PISA test, because—well, you know—politicians in the first decade of 2000’s decided that all kids needed to be tested to prove that that their teachers were good or bad, and that their schools were doing the job, not to mention to tell me if I passed or failed.  Then, in collaboration with the European organization OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development), nations decided to use PISA like tests each year for all kids at the high school level.

New Reform Was Nixed in 2015

Things changed very fast during the second term of President Obama.  He tried to implement a new education reform agenda that would have eliminated high-stakes testing, and replaced them with low-stakes tests.    He met with several education activists during your day, including Diane Ravitch, Mayor Bill De Blasio, Jean Sanders, Anthony Cody, Audrey Watters, P.L. Thomas, and many others.  They convinced President Obama that the Department of Education was leading the country in the wrong direction and that it would be the interests of American families to turn the tide away from the corporate led education agenda.

He also proposed that curriculum (the stuff we study and have to learn) would be developed by teachers at the local level and that teachers would use formative assessments (weekly tests, projects, laboratory reports, portfolios, questions, participation) to determine how well students do in school.  End-of-year tests could be given, but they would be only used to see how the system was doing.  They were never to be used to evaluate teachers, or principals, or determine if schools were good or bad.

These ideas never were realized.

Instead politicians and business leaders continued to lead our country along the same path developed earlier that we call the authoritarian standards and high-stakes testing reform movement.  Not only did they insist that all schools adopt the Common Core State Standards in English/language art and math, but they added science, and history to the common core.

My father has told us that extending this policy was an awful mistake.

The Climate Changed!

But something else happened which had a profound impact on schooling as you knew it.

imagesClimate change ravaged our country in ways you couldn’t image.  If you continued to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists at the Hadley Centre in London in an article in Nature in 2000, predicted significant changes in climate would occur.  According to one report that I read scientists in your day predicted that sea level would rise because of the melting of glaciers and ice-sheets, and that the general warming that was in effect would lead to more and more really hot days, and many less cold days.  Your scientists also predicted that warmer temperatures would upset or accelerate the water cycle which would lead to more extreme droughts, and/or floods in some area, and less severe droughts and/or floods in other areas.

All of these predictions were unfortunately accurate, especially droughts and/or floods, and how they have affected the North American continent.  From Texas right up through Oklahoma to North Dakota and into Canada, and spreading east to Indiana, and west to Utah, a huge desert has been formed after years of drought.  States in the far west, south, and east coast have received sufficient to extreme rainfall causing unusual flooding.  But at least they are not what you called The Dust Bowl.

Our family was forced to move from the New Orleans area to Atlanta and we started a new life here.  We live near the city center in a high rise apartment building, from which I can see Stone Mountain to the East, and Kennesaw Mountain to the West.  I’ve never been to either, but I’ve seen close up pictures, and stories about people who actually visited these parks, and climbed to the summits. Oh, well.

Learning in 2063

UnknownThe apartment I live in with my brothers and parents is amazing.  You thought that technology in 2013 was cool, you simply can’t image the technology we have today.  Our house runs with power that we generate as part of the residential solar power project.  We actually generate so much power, that we sell the excess back to Georgia Power.  We spend most of our time in our apartment, as Atlanta is so crowded with people, and we don’t use the kinds of cars that you used–you know the ones that used fossil fuels.

We didn’t run out of fossil fuels, we simply were forced to use other energy sources because with an increased population, we were polluting the air at rates never seen before.  Plus, as I told you, we have had massive climatic changes in North America caused by Global Warming.

Why didn’t you believe the scientists in your time that Earth was heating up at an alarming rate?  I just don’t understand your thinking back then.  The evidence was all around you.  Glaciers were shrinking at alarming rates.  Fires were ravaging huge parts of the Earth.  The weather during your lifetime was getting more extreme—remember all of the tornadoes, hurricanes, and huge blizzards?  Oh well.

Online Learning

But lets shift gears again.  Online learning is now the standard for most American’s today.  Today’s computers are not only faster than the ones you used, but we think of them as an extension of ourselves.  My computer has the processing power of our brains, and scientists have developed software that led to an “intelligence explosion” and interestingly, a better way to participate in the actions of our government.  President Fusaro was the first American President elected when all eligible citizens voted from their computers in their homes or in public libraries.  Don’t worry, every citizen in our country has all the technology I spoke about.

We have great courses to choose from.  However, we are accountable to the government in four areas of learning: reading and language arts, mathematics, science and engineering, and history and political science.

My Favorite Lessons

My favorite lessons on my computer are in courses that combine activities from different fields of study.  One course I took was entitled: Why People’s Ideas Don’t Change?  This was interesting to me because I wondered why people in the early part of this century wouldn’t change their ideas about climate change, evolution, and how children learn.  Seemed as if everyone was stuck in the muck, and resisted changing their ideas.  Climate change is real.  Life evolved on the Earth according the ideas laid out the famous Charles Darwin.  And we humans are not robots.  We learn in many different ways.  What happened back then to turn your back on solid research supporting these ideas?  Well, let’s take a look.

The course was based on research done early in this century that found that beliefs about controversial factual questions (such as climate change, evolution, or how children learn) was closely linked to one’s ideological preferences or partisan beliefs.

The teacher used a teaching method that I really like.  It’s called the “Case Study” method, and using this approach, we learned the basic ideas of people’s resistance to change, but in the context of a real issue or problem.  One of the controversial questions that we studied in our course was the question of whether or not Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) prior to the Iraq War invasion.  Honestly, I had not read much about this war, but once I did, I realized how controversial the war was to Americans during the early part of the century.

The researchers who conducted the study on the Iraq War found that people’s pre-existing ideas are preserved even when they are presented with contrary information.  The first mechanism that they shine a light on is that individuals may “engage in a biased search process, seeking out information that supports their preconceptions and avoiding evidence that undercuts their beliefs.  A second mechanism is called the “backfire effect.”  In this case, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—i.e.–the backfire effect.

The fact that people’s pre-existing ideas influenced whether they would accept new information was also related to their ideological beliefs—liberals tended to accept the new information; for centrists, it didn’t matter, but for conservatives, they tended to push the new information away, and hold more solidly to their exiting ideas.  Even when people were given information that Iraq did not have WMD, most of these people did not accept the information, and even became more resistant to alternative explanations.

Well, this course helped me understand why we have held on to your education reforms that so many researchers in your day showed were not supported by research.  I read about one of your researchers by name of Diane Ravitch.  At one time she did support the standards-based high-stakes reform movement, but in mid-2005, she wrote a book that showed how the reforms starting with NCLB were ruining American education.  It was in your day that you actually decided to use student test scores to determine if our teachers and schools were good or bad.

So many people have held on to their preexisting beliefs about how we learn.  They continue to believe that everyone should learn the same material, and that the way to find out if we learned the stuff, is to take a multiple-choice test.  It’s like they think that ideas can be stuffed into our heads!  Don’t they know the work of Jean PiagetLev Vygotsky, or Marcia Linn?  All of these educators discovered and taught you that we humans learn from experience, and that we actually build up our ideas through interaction with the content and other people.  Why did the education reformers of your day ignore this research, and instead listen to corporate types who knew nothing about education, let alone how people learn?

Enough of this.

Few Schools, Lots of Kids

During the early years of this century, school districts all around the country closed one school after another.  They blamed it on budget short-falls.  But their decision led to a real problem for us.  Remember I said that because of the radically changing climate, many people had to move to safer areas, and these tended to be cities in the far west, in the south, and along the east coast.  The cities filled up, but there was very little space for kids to go to real brick and mortar buildings.  There just weren’t enough classrooms for all of us.  We only get to go to school once a year.


Back in the day, I found out that the OECD used the term PISA Day to refer to the day when the results of the PISA assessments were announced.  It was a world event.  As I understood, newspapers clamored to get ahold of the League Standings so that they could write stories about how bad or how good kids did on the test.

We now have PISA Week.  Its a week during every year when all kids around the world take several PISA tests that are now used to assess student learning around the world.  That’s right, every kid takes the same test.

I know that there were many educators in your day who opposed this, and fought hard to change the law.  But they were outspent and didn’t have the political support to adopt ideas that were based on learning theory and cognitive as well as humanistic psychology.

Fives Walk to School on Thursday

The NEW EDUCATION law insists that all students must take the exams in a school building under very tight security measures.  I read an article published on the blog site, The Answer Sheet that said that testing days were like a “lock-down” rather than a normal day at school.  The author of the article, Larry Lee, visited an Alabama school when the state reading and math tests were given (NCLB act).  According to Mr. Lee, there was “no laughter, no smiles, no hugs, too many straight-faced youngsters, too many with stress that the nurse was on call.”

The teachers picked up the their tests from a secure room.  After signing off for the tests, the teachers returned to their rooms, and opened the big plastic box that contained the exams for the students.  The students started bubbling in their answers.

Believe it or not, the same system is still in effect today.

The Big Day. But in my day, things are a bit different.  Remember I told you that I take all my courses from home using my computer.  My computer screen delivers all the content that I need to prepare me for the Big Day.  On the Big Day, each kid takes a walk to the closest school building.  There are so many people living in the our urban areas, that not all the kids can come to school to sit down and take the bubble type examination on the same day.

My test day is Thursday, because on Thursday Fives go to school to take their high-stakes PISA test.  That’s right.  On the last Thursday in April, those kids whose numbers end in 5 get to walk to school and take their PISA tests.  There just isn’t enough space for all the kids in the neighborhood to come to school on the same day.  When we get to school, we are assigned a room where we will spend six hours taking our exams.  We also get a 40 minute break for lunch!

This is an exciting day.  It’s the one day that I get to go to school, and see the kids that I have been communicating with over the Internet.  Its a great experience.  As that last Thursday in April gets closer, I get more and more excited.  Not only do I get to walk to school, but I get to walk through the Green Spaces near our apartment, and see the beautiful buildings that surround these spaces.  We can visit the Green Spaces, but only on allotted days and only for a couple of hours.

I can hardly wait until tomorrow, because tomorrow is Thursday, and we Fives walk to school on Thursday.  We’ll get to take our PISAS tests, and see our friends!

Well, that’s the way it is in the year 2063.

Best regards,

Skyler F.

P.S.  I found the following articles valuable in my research to write this letter to you.  You might want to check them out.

This is a fictional story written by a 14 year-old student living in the year 2063 in Atlanta.  She brings us into the world of the future by writing a time travel letter telling us about life, education and testing in her day.  

Is Skyler’s world a forecast that has any believability?  Is the convergence of the effects of global warming and the effects of a failed education policy a coincidence, or could they be related?

Note: This post was adapted from Five’s Walk on Thursday, published by Science Workshop, Inc., Atlanta, GA, and published in print in by Jack Hassard, Science Experiences, Addison-Wesley Publishers, 1990.


Is the Purpose of Education Economic Development? The State of Georgia Says Yes.

Which of the following is the most important purpose of education in Georgia?

  1. to prepare students to become responsible citizens
  2. to enhance personal happiness and enrich lives
  3. to support the economic development of the state
  4. to get a job
  5. to learn how to learn

According to Governor Deal’s website, the answer is either 3 or 4, since it is clearly stated on the Governor’s website that education is economic development (Figure 3).  Or another way to put this is that students are in school because they will be future workers who will develop the economy.  The purpose is to get a job.

There are five points outlined on the Governor’s website, and “education is economic development” is number 1.  The purpose of schooling, according to the Governor’s website is based on the rationale that Georgia students (as well as students in the rest of the nation) have “lost ground” to their peers around the world, and to get our students up to speed we’ll go out-of-the-way to push student’s academic achievement higher and higher so that the U.S. ranks at the top (aka Race to the Top).

Not are graduates of American quite able to compete globally, they have built the world’s largest economy.  How can the state make the claim that students are in the middle of the pack.  Oh, that’s very easy.  All they do is look at the results on one of the international achievement tests such as PISA or TIMSS, and they claim that U.S. students fall somewhere in the middle of average scores of sixty or more nations.  In math and science, American students are not falling behind, and are not in the middle of the pack.

American students are not in the middle of the pack.  In fact they are quite high in the league standings chart, and indeed, if Massachusetts was a country, it would be number one on the PISA international tests in math and science.

Furthermore, over the past 20 years, NAEP long-term test results show that American students (elementary, middle and high school, white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American) scores increasing in mathematics, reading and science.  Take a look at mathematics score from 1973 – 2008.  Where is the failure here?  Scores seem to be going up, and if you go the NAEP Long Term Trend site (not available right now because of the Government shutdown), you will find scores for African-American and Hispanic students following this pattern.

Figure 1. NAEP Mathematics Scores of American students, 1973 - 2008.
Figure 1. NAEP Mathematics Scores of American students, 1973 – 2008.

Here are two more graphs that the Governor of Georgia and his staff should study and use to rewrite their opinions of education in Georgia.

Figure 2.  Long term trend reading scores of American elementary students.
Figure 2. Long term trend reading scores of American elementary students.

Yet, even with these FACTS, the state of Georgia keeps repeating the mantra that students and schools are failing and that the solution is to hire uncertified teachers from Teach from America (my critique of TFA), turn around failing schools by firing the staff and then converting it to charter school run by management companies that probably have its corporate office in Florida.

Governor of Georgia’s Statement on Education Issues

Figures 3 and  show copies of the Governor’s statement on education.  Figure 3 is unmarked.  I’ve used red and blue arrows and comments to highlight some of the problems with the State of Georgia’s approach to education as shown in Figure 4.

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Figure 3. Statement on the Issues related to Education on the Governor of Georgia’s Website.


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Figure 4. Marked Up copy of the Governor of Georgia statement on education.

This is what happens when politics and corporate influence and power misinterpret the purpose of schooling in a democratic society.