It’s been over a month since Team USA 4th Grade did their coaches, American public school teachers, proud by coming in fourth in the world’s reading rankings. Yet, there’s been very little celebrating in this country of ours so famous for making the most out of success in international competition. An Olympic Bronze in synchronized swimming would have garnered more praise.
According to the 2011 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), the only countries with better 4th Grade reading levels are Russia, Finland, and Singapore. Hong Kong was also listed as outperforming us, but it’s not a country. This is a remarkable success for U.S. public education, especially when you take into account that we have 48 million public school students of which at least 10 percent are English Language Learners - that’s about five million students - almost equivalent to the total population of Finland.
In addition, U.S. schools and teachers have to deal with disproportionate levels of poverty, and research has proven unequivocally that poverty is the most important determining factor in educational outcomes. According to census statistics, more than 16 million American kids (nearly 25 percent) live in poverty, whereas Finland’s childhood poverty rate is about 5 percent. There are no official statistics out of Singapore but the wealthy city-state offers a relatively comprehensive social safety net for locals, borne out by the fact that 80 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing, the purchasing of which is subsidized, so 90 percent own their own homes. Reliable Russian poverty statistics are elusive but anecdotal evidence suggests that poverty levels may be high but education is prioritized.
Fourth may not be a medal spot but surely some good news about the educational achievements of our “failing” public schools warrants at least a pat on the back of our oft-maligned teachers.
Of course, the value of these international comparisons based upon standardized tests is questionable. However, when U.S. students perform poorly on such comparisons, we never hear the end of it. What happened to South Korea which the President recently hailed as having an exemplary education system? Indeed, the nation’s whole attitude to schools and teachers is based upon the presumption that our schools are overfunded and underperforming compared to their overseas counterparts.
A whole industry is based upon this presumption - Waiting for Superman’s Michelle Rhee has pledged to raise $1 billion through her lobbying organization, StudentsFirst, to overhaul the public education system according to her reform tastes. Raising that kind of cash will be tough enough without having to deal with the adverse publicity that U.S. educational success might create.
Contrary to accepted wisdom, and many reports, we’re not spending relatively more than other countries to get these results. According to a new report the Economist Intelligence Unit, the U.S. spends less than 22 percent of its GDP on education compared to Finland’s 30 percent and the UK’s 26 percent. Figures are unavailable for Russia or Singapore but even Hong Kong clocks in at 23.5 percent.
It is vital for us to recognize the successes as well as the failures of our schools. Too many people are being misled by biased reports about the condition of our educational system. In turn, this is leading to bad decisions and the misuse of public funds to fix things that ain’t broke. Of course, we should always be striving to improve our schools but we must also recognize what does work and give credit where credit’s due.
Daniel Ward is editor of Language Magazine, Los Angeles, Calif. www.languagemagazine.com