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Not as Bad as We Think 

Those international educational rankings tell us something about education — but more about poverty

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The monologue likely helped Jeff Daniels win an Emmy for his role in The Newsroom.

A single question from a straw man of a sorority girl — "Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?" — kicks off the rapid-fire rant that creator/writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) seems contractually obligated to stick into every one of his pilot episodes.

Bland cable newsman Will McAvoy is suddenly transformed into a fiery Keith Olbermann equivalent, spitting out stats he apparently memorized for just such an occasion.

"We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force and No. 4 in exports," McAvoy says. "So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the f--- you're talking about. Yosemite?"

Let's set aside the fact McAvoy misunderstands infant mortality rankings (nobody wants to rank first in infant mortality). Rather, look at those first numbers — our supposedly dire educational rankings.

Instead, examine the similar-sounding, nonfictional rankings that made headlines earlier this month. The results of the international Programme for International Student Assessment test showed the United States ranked 26th among 34 developed nations in mathematics, 21st in science and 17th in reading. Places like Shanghai and Hong Kong led the pack, even as U.S. scores remained flat. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the scores "a picture of educational stagnation."

Rankings like these have long been political fodder. To one speaker or another, they're an obvious reason that we need a radical change or a redoubled investment — that we need to add vouchers or create charters or stick our kids in homeschools or private schools or double teacher salaries.

Yet upon closer examination, while those rankings can indicate true differences between countries, they don't necessarily speak to the quality of the school systems.

Talk to Lori Wyborney, principal of Rogers High School in Spokane, and she'll tell you she's seen these sorts of rankings before. "They frustrate me, because they're not necessarily tit-for-tat," Wyborney says. "This is a country that educates all kids, and not all nations do that, and they definitely track differently than we do."

She's right. China does well on the PISA test; the PISA tests all of China, including wealthy cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong.

That's a problem, because China increasingly suffers from vast income inequality: Life and education in the towering high-rises of Shanghai is vastly different from the rural rice fields of the impoverished Guizhou province.

Bloggers at Slate, Time and the Washington Post have explored accusations that China was "cheating" the PISA test. Not only was Shanghai just testing its wealthy areas — only 79 percent of Shanghai students were tested — it had made it almost impossible for migrants to enroll in schools.

Comparing the whole of the U.S. to China's wealthy cities is like pitting the best varsity football team against randomly selected schlubs from third-period gym class. It's not fair and doesn't tell you much about either team.

There also are valid questions over the value of scrutinizing the educational skill of 15-year-olds. These freshmen and sophomores are generally more concerned with how to tie a corsage than being ready for the competitive global marketplace. A better test would compare the skill of college graduates. When it comes to worldwide rankings, the top tier of American colleges, for all their flaws, remain at the top worldwide.

"A lot of students, in China, South Korea, India, where do they study medicine?" Wyborney asks. "They do it in the United States."

The PISA rankings can tell us something, though: The U.S. has dramatically reformed education in the past 20 years: It's seen an explosion in the charter school movement, a barrage of new accountability requirements, multiple waves of state testing and a renewed focus on science, math and technology. And yet its PISA test scores have remained stagnant.

That indicates we either haven't tried the right reform strategy, or that the problems for American student performance may go deeper than changing the curriculum or adding new tests. This year, PISA scores were broken out for a select few states: Massachusetts, one of the richest states, was competitive with the top-ranked countries, while Florida, a poorer state, dropped much further down. Poverty, not educational strategy, may be the difference.

There's the challenge for a place like Rogers High School. More than three-quarters of the students at Rogers are low-income enough to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program: It's by far the poorest school in Spokane County. Rogers has made big strides improving graduation rates in the past five years, but Wyborney floats the idea that some elements of American education — with homework, summer breaks and the six-hour day — may be hurting low-income kids. The scary gap in achievement isn't the gulf between American schools and foreign schools; it's the gulf within American schools — between the privileged and the underprivileged.

"Here's my bottom line: Poor kids in this school are getting screwed," Wyborney says. "The only schools that fail in this nation are schools in poverty. We've got to get at that. To save the whole society, really." ♦

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