Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: What we choose to overlook

Our fondness for truisms doesn’t seem diminished, even when truisms aren’t true. That’s certainly the case with the popular myth that American students’ test scores can’t compare with those of kids in East Asia or Europe.

This truism has inspired billionaires, such as Bill Gates and the Milken Brothers (in an act, perhaps, of atonement for Michael Milken — he was allegedly the partial inspiration for “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko — and his junk-bond scandal) to want to dump their billions into “turning education around.”

But their largesse is founded on the “truism” that American kids are stupid, are getting stupider, and rivaled in “stupidocracy” only by their own teachers.

The unindicted statistical data would seem to bear that out, but the numbers need closer examination.

According to the often-cited Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) tests, East Asian students lead all nations, but American fourth- and eighth-graders score better in math and science than students in most European Union nations.

That’s not cause for dancing atop the classroom desks. While the international average for fourth-grade math on the last TIMSS in 2007 was 500, American students scored a fairly mediocre 529; students in Japan scored 568.

Here’s where closer examination is relevant. When the scores of American students from districts with a 10 percent or lower poverty rate are isolated, according to University of San Francisco professor Jim Taylor, Americans score 583.

And that, Taylor argues, needs to be put in a greater statistical context: The childhood poverty rate in the United States is 22.4 percent, second only to Mexico’s among developed nations. In Finland, the nation whose schools are most often cited for excellence, the poverty rate is 3 percent.

The same phenomenon emerges when the even-more-cited PISA test is examined. PISA measures the achievement of 15-year-olds. Finnish students averaged 536 on the 2009 test; Americans, 500.

But when Virginia high school principal and education writer Mel Riddile used the same standard Taylor did — using only the scores of districts with poverty rates of 10 percent or less — the scores flipped: American students, 551; Finnish students, 536.

In his study, Riddile quotes a true truism from Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

In the case of American students’ test scores, it’s “unexamined statistics” that are the problem, and, as well, the sources for a new cycle — remember Sputnik and, in the 1980s, “A Nation at Risk?”— in the vilification of American education, which currently seems to border on the gleeful.

Indeed, in 1869, when Twain published his first bestseller, “The Innocents Abroad,” this appeared in an “Atlantic Monthly” article:

“It is indisputable that French and German boys ... are better trained at 17 than their American contemporaries, and in a larger variety of subjects.”

What we should be celebrating is that America leads the world in the percentage of its workforce that is college-educated; the high-school dropout rate was 8 percent in 2009, when it was 27 percent in 1960; SAT exams (once the province of a kind of WASP country club) are being taken by more and more minority and poor students, and their scores are improving. Yet we choose to overlook.

It’s much easier, evidently, to excoriate teachers than it is to summon the courage to look beyond statistics and squarely at the face of a hungry, or homeless, or scared, American third-grader.

Jim Gregory is a history teacher at Arroyo Grande High School.

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