On Dec. 7, the results of the
Program for International Student Assessment were released, ranking America
24th out of 29 industrialized nations on a test of 15-year-old students’ "mathematics
literacy" and "problem
Reading these baleful results brought to mind a
personal experience I hadn’t thought of for years. My daughter, then in the 6th
grade, came to me with her math textbook, asking for help with a type of
homework problem that called for the use of a standard formula. I was thus
astonished to open her textbook and read the instructions, "Solve the problem
any way you can."
With textbooks like that, I can’t help thinking, it’s no
wonder our kids don’t understand math. Like warning alarms on a diving
airplane, the PISA results are one more indication that we need fundamental
education reform — because the ground is coming up fast.
The PISA is part of a battery of tests administered every
three years that participating countries can use to see how they compare with
each other and how they compare with their own internal forms of assessment.
Participating countries are mainly the industrialized nations of the
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This particular round
of testing also included 11 countries that are not OECD members, so that 41
countries participated in all. Data are available for 39 of the countries,
including 29 OECD nations.
A statistically representative sample of 15-year-olds from
each country participated in PISA. Fifteen-year-olds were tested specifically to
ensure that different nations would have comparable student populations, since
schooling is compulsory for all 15-year-olds in each of the countries tested.
PISA questions students’ ability to (in the words of the
examiners) "apply mathematical knowledge and skills to a range of different
situations they may encounter in their lives."
For example, using a formula provided by the examiners,
students are asked to compare and evaluate "the
best car" in a table that lists five cars with four features each. On this
question, American kids scored better on average than the OECD countries, but on
the overall math literacy test, American students — which as a group didn’t even
attain the average OECD score — were "less mathematically literate than their
peers in 20 of the other 28 OECD countries." Three non-OECD countries, including
Liechtenstein, topped America, while
Latvia tied. Even the top 10 percent of U.S. students were, on average,
"outperformed by their OECD counterparts." Performance on the problem-solving
segment of the test was equally dismal.
The evidence that the American system of government schools
isn’t getting the job done is not limited to the PISA results. The data
demonstrating this are now practically endless, including findings on
student performance on national tests,
student performance on state tests,
student performance on other international tests,
the black-white achievement gap,
textbook selection, or
the cost of remedial education to universities, colleges and employers. In
the face of such overwhelming evidence, only those in serious denial would
continue to maintain that America’s education crisis has been "manufactured"
by the political right.
Those who defend the monopoly school system that produces
these results sing a single-stanza refrain that is easy to learn:
We need more money. The refrain remains unchanged despite annual U.S.
expenditures in excess of a
half-trillion dollars on K-12 education and little improvement after three
decades of ever-increasing largesse.
At this juncture, the government school system lacks
neither the reasons nor the money to improve. What the system lacks is the
capacity to change.
And why should it change?
Its gargantuan size has effectively eliminated the voice of
parents, yet it is practically guaranteed an endless river of taxpayer dollars,
no matter how it performs. Not even the full weight of the federal government
and the ponderous 1000-page No Child Left Behind Act are enough to create and
sustain systemic excellence.
Sadly, America hasn’t been desperate enough to roll up her
sleeves and do more than spend money to solve this problem. But that may be
changing. The economic consequences of our intransigence are becoming clear. For instance, on Oct. 1,
the first day of a government immigration program that allows foreign guest
workers to enter our country, companies like Microsoft filled a total of 65,000
technical jobs — the maximum allowed by the law. The correlation between our
failed education policies and our increasing dependence on foreign talent is
PISA, other international exams (such as the
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), and the economic fallout from ineffective schools are revealing that
it’s time to get serious about solving the problem "any way we can." Defenders of
the status quo have used the idea of trying "anything that works" to suggest a
broad series of trendy, but ultimately feckless reforms involving spending,
teachers salaries, state curricula, standardized testing, smaller class sizes,
"child-centered" learning, Goals 2000, outcomes-based education, and a laundry
list of other ideas.
Having seen these go down in flames, it is time to try the
one thing that we haven’t tried but that works in every other segment of
the American economy: marketplace competition on a massive scale, preferably
through such school-choice solutions as
universal education tax credits. To those who say such proposals are too
extreme, I would respond that in this case, the math book would be right: It’s
time to solve the problem any way we can. In fact, these instructions suggest
the kind of bold, uninhibited and immediate approach that needs to be taken if
America’s education problem is to be solved at all.
Brian L. Carpenter is director of
the leadership development initiative for the Mackinac Center for Public
Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the
author and the Center are properly cited.
 Longstreet, W.S. (2000). Afterword: the age of pluralism. In Marshall, J. D., Sears, J. T., & Schubert, W. H. (2000). Turning points in curriculum: a contemporary American memoir. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.
 Up-to-date TIMSS results for fourth- and eighth-graders will be released Monday, Dec. 13.