BOGUE: Making the grade

American education needs state-by-state solutions

Little is more integral to the prosperity of a nation than its ability to educate the next generation. Economists and sociologists alike have long championed the development of “human capital” — the collective skills and knowledge of a population — as increasingly important to economic growth and rising standards of living. President Barack Obama has made it an explicit goal of his administration to increase the number of Americans graduating from college. In a world dominated by the necessity for highly skilled labor, where the greatest growth is coming from high-tech industries, creating and sustaining an educated workforce is imperative to remaining competitive.

It is disappointing, then, to consider the results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), released Tuesday. PISA is an international test administered by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) every three years to test the proficiency of 15-year-olds in three areas: science, reading and math. In 2012, the U.S. ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading among the 34 OECD countries. In science and reading, U.S. students scored around the OECD average, while we slipped below the average in math — hardly fitting results for the world’s current economic superpower and a self-proclaimed “exceptional” nation. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, these results are a “picture of educational stagnation.”

Duncan is right. Shanghai, topped the PISA list. Finland, Ireland, Korea and a host of other countries outperformed U.S. students, even though American students have traditionally reported the highest rates of confidence in their academic abilities. On the whole, U.S. students are told they are the best even as they slip further and further behind their peers in other countries.

While it is necessary to recognize the severity of the problem — and the urgency with which we should address it — it is equally necessary to temper our response with a healthy dose of realism. As much as the PISA test results say about the current state of education in the United States, it is what they don’t say that should most inform our approach to education reform in this country. For example, this year, for the first time, three states in the U.S. fielded enough test-takers to receive individual results: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Florida. Among these, both Connecticut and Massachusetts performed better than the country as a whole, fielding a higher percentage of top performers in every category and equaling or surpassing the OECD average on all tests, while Florida fell behind in all areas. Although we have data on only these three states, we can reasonably surmise that similarly wide variation exists across multiple U.S. states.

It is therefore questionable to conclude from the dismal PISA results that there needs to be some federal reform — such as No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s hallmark education bill — to address America’s failing schools. Some states are doing better than others. A state-by-state approach will be necessary to pull up the scores of states that are falling behind without stifling the states who are leading the pack. The problems of U.S. education cannot be chalked up to the lack of a nationwide curriculum or too few charter schools or any number of the simple fixes that reformers sometimes champion.

Using the PISA test results as justification for any federal action would be a mistake. The autonomy of states is one of America’s greatest strengths, and the case is no different with education reform. Local and state level problems demand local and state-level solutions.

But what exactly are the problems we are facing? The PISA test results can point us to the other confounding variable in the equation: poverty. According to the OECD, 15 percent of variance in test results can be explained by the socioeconomic status of the child taking the test.

The U.S. has the one of the highest child poverty rates in the world out of developed nations, and schools in the poorest districts in the U.S. post the worst scores on the test. Conversely, students in the wealthiest districts posted such outstanding scores that, taken by themselves, they would have been near the top of the charts in every category. Although poverty alone cannot explain the poor performance of American students, it certainly seems to be one of the most significant factors contributing to academic success. Lawmakers across the nation would thus be better served by combating the effects and causes of childhood poverty — undernutrition, lack of access to health care, inadequate time for studying — than they would by fixating on implementing various educational reform policies.

The 2012 PISA test results are discouraging, and they should serve as a wake-up call. Stagnant scores for the past decade, despite massive spending per student and significant reform efforts, point to problems that lie outside the realm of curriculum development and class sizes. Although we should use the test to spur us to greater action, we should be wary of drawing incorrect conclusions from the data. The problems the U.S. faces vary widely across its states, and factors outside the traditionally delineated realm of “education reform” may be the most influential. Our approach should be a comprehensive, creative, and state-level effort to improve under-performing districts without hampering the districts doing well. Perhaps then, in three years’ time, we will have something to celebrate again.

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

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