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The Difference between a $10,000 Education and a $10 Education

19 December 2011 27,014 11 Comments

Amanda Ripley recently picked on Diane Ravitch over the issue of how much poverty matters in educational achievement, accusing Ravitch of distorting the reality. By playing with the PISA data, Ripley tries to prove that poverty should not be considered a big problem or excuse for the poor quality of American education. That was what I thought at first, then upon reading more of her writings, I realized that she was trying to prove a bigger point: American education sucks and other countries are great.

Not exactly an earth-shattering or groundbreaking observation from new data or fresh insights. She is simply repeating what has been said for over half a century. In the 1950’s, American education was said to be broken and was told to learn from the Soviet Union. In the 1980’s, American education was still bad but was told to learn from Japan because the Soviet Union was collapsing. In the 1990’s TIMSS showed how bad American education was and Singapore became the new model of educational excellence, especially in math. Entering the 21st century, Finland became the target of admiration because of its stunning performance in the new international academic horse race PISA. And today, China has become the newest poster child of great education. All along, American education was said to have never improved. And there is evidence to prove that. Just look at miserable rankings of American students in PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS.

The bad American schools and the lousy American test-takers have somehow managed not to ruin America, as I have written in a number of places.

Now back to the specific issue of poverty. As someone who escaped extreme poverty through education, I would be the first to object to any suggestion that poverty is intractable. But I would also BE the first to object to any suggestion that it does not matter. And neither Ripley nor Ravitch appears to be that extreme. In fact, on the surface, they seem to be in complete agreement: Poverty matters but the purpose of education is to help overcome poverty.

They differ, of course. While Ravitch points out that poverty, one of the most persistent and wide-spread social problems in America, cannot and will not be solved by simply blaming American schools and teachers, as the leading reformers in America have been doing, Ripley charges that she is using poverty as an excuse for not trying to improve education in America. While Ravitch questions policies that put the least politically powerful and poorest resourced group of people—educators—in charge of solving the largest social problems, Ripley accuses her of distorting the reality. By the way, this type of reform in the U.S., without considering poverty, has not produced real results.

To show how mistaken Ravitch is, Ripley pulls out PISA scores to show even American’s rich kids don’t do as well as rich kids in other countries. She says “In reading, American kids’ best subject, our most affluent students still rank behind the most affluent kids in six other countries. (Even though we spend far more money per student than all of those countries.)” And these countries are (in order of 2009 PISA reading performance): New Zealand, Korea, Belgium, Finland, Canada, and Australia.

To driver her point home, Ripley wrote another post with the title Why Our Rich Kids Rank 23rd in Math. In this post, she asks:

Anyone care to offer a theory for why our most affluent kids score 23rd in math and 18th in science? Is it a lack of motivation? An overabundance of wealth? If so, why aren’t we below average in reading, too?

In the same spirit, I might add a question that Ripley implied but did not explicitly pose: Why America spends more money per student but does not have the top scores?

I could not resist the temptation of such intriguing questions so I spent some time on this and came up with a theory. Not sure if Ripley would consider this “wildly misleading,” but I would welcome good refutation on each part.

The theory is actually fairly straightforward. It has five parts:

Part 1: PISA scores do not equal the quality of education.

As much as Ripley and others tout PISA as “the most respected international tests of teenagers around the world,” it only measures reading, math, and science—and even for these subjects, it measures a small proportion of skills and knowledge. Everyone (hopefully Ripley included) would agree that these are not all education is about. What about social skills, emotional intelligences, creativity, collaborative skills, critical thinking, or motivation? What about music, arts, physical fitness, history, geography?

Treating PISA scores as the indication of the quality of education is parallel to treating IQ scores as an accurate measure of human intelligence and capacity. Stephen J. Gould accurately identified the philosophical fallacies underlying such attempt in his The Mismeasure of Man.

In his efforts to debunk the myth of biological determinism in human mentality, he points out the first fallacy is reification, or “our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities. We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it…We therefore give the word ‘intelligence’ to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing ” (p. 56).

The second fallacy is ranking, “or our propensity for ordering complex variation as a gradual ascending scale…but ranking requires a criterion for assigning all individuals to their proper status in the single series. And what better criterion than an objective number?” (p. 56)

Cannot we say the same about PISA and education? Aren’t we reducing education to a single number?

Part 2: If we agree that PISA scores indicate only a small proportion of what education is and there are many other outcomes education produces that PISA does not measure, we should then allow the possibility that some people may not consider what PISA measures as important or valuable as what PISA does not measure.

Part 3: It is then possible that those who do not consider what PISA measures valuable choose to spend their time, resources, and energy on things other than what PISA measures.

Part 4A: The availability of real and perceived viable choices varies in different contexts/nations. For various reasons, some societies may provide more paths to life’s success than others. For example, getting good test scores in a few subjects in China and Korea has traditionally been perceived to be the only path to a better economic life and higher social status, but that is not necessarily true in the United States.

Part 4B: Time, resources, and energy are a constant. Hence if one spends them on one thing, they cannot have the same for other things. If one spends 5 hours a day playing music, he cannot spend that 5 hours on math. And if not sufficient time, resources, and energy are devoted to studying something, one cannot be very good at it.

Part 5: Therefore America’s rich kids’ poor performance in math and science and relatively good performance in reading is at least partially the result of choice—choice made by students, parents, schools, and communities. Rightly or wrongly, Americans may be more likely than others to believe that the academic abilities measured by PISA is not the only path to success in life. American schools also create more choices through a broader curriculum. America also has a more diverse set of higher education institutions that, unlike colleges in other countries, use a more diverse set of indicators beside test scores to admit students. There are also many Americans who believe they can succeed without going to college. In America there are also very successful entrepreneurs, entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities who did not necessarily have a great academic background, which can inspire many to pursue non-academic enterprises. And until very recently, there are no centralized national curriculum,standards, and high-stakes testing to push American schools, teachers, and students to narrow the options to what PISA measures.

In a nutshell, American’s abundance and cultural genes provide more educational choices than other countries.While these choices may have produced America’s poor PISA performance, they also have resulted in a diversity of talents and more capacity for creativity.

Conversely the high performance of some other countries may just be “forced excellence.” That is, schools, parents, and students are all forced to achieve academically because that is the only option for success. Those who are unable or unwilling to do so are selected out. Moreover, there are also educational systems that do not have the material wealth to support many choices—arts studios and supplies, swimming pools, media centers, or musical instruments, so the only thing left is to memorize and hone skills in a few academic subjects.

The availability of choices in America is an envy of many countries. Having the option to choose different paths is not cheap or easily available. It is an advantage, a privilege, not a disadvantage or liability. A $10,000 education can and should buy much more than test scores while a $10 education can only buy test scores. Why do we want to turn a $10,000 education into one that can be achieved with $10?

I have made extensive analyses of what a $10,000 American education gets that are not measured by standardized tests in my book Catching Up or Leading the Way defending American education so I will not repeat them here. But Professor Vivek Wadhwa’s Business Week column in response to the results of the 2009 PISA affirms analyses:

Meanwhile, the perception is that American children live a relatively easy life and coast their way through school. They don’t do any more homework than they have to; they spend an extraordinary amount of time playing games, socializing on the Internet, text-messaging each other; they work part time to pay for their schooling and social habits. And they party. A lot. These stereotypes worry many Americans. They believe the American education system puts the country at a great disadvantage. But this is far from true.

The independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks. They can think for themselves, and they can innovate. This is why America remains the world leader in innovation; why Chinese and Indians invest their life savings to send their children to expensive U.S. schools when they can.

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  • Stephen Krashen said:

    This is the first I have heard of the Amanda Ripley accusation, which I discovered comes from Eric Hanuschek. The claim is that our “privileged” students don’t do as well as privileged students from other countries on the PISA.

    I checked this out. The data is on page 165 of PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background, published by OECD, which presents PISA reading scores in relationship to the PISA index for economic, social and cultural status. According to my calculations, of the 65 countries listed, only four score significantly higher. This means the US ties for 5th place out of 65 countries.

    The US score is 558 with a standard error of 4.7. This means that it is likely that 95% of the US scores are between 567.2 and 548.8 (95% confidence interval). Only four countries’ scores fall outside that interval: Korea (572), New Zealand (578), Shanghai (not a country, by the way) (594), and Singapore (575).

    Shanghai is a clear outlier: Even their lowest 25% in SES have very high scores, scoring 521, miles ahead of any other country.

  • Stephen Krashen said:

    Checking Amanda Ripley’s tweets, I see that she is referring to math. My analysis (above) is from reading. But the link she provides for her claim doesn’t work. The PISA 2009 volume does not provide math scores.

  • Clare Strawn said:

    Allan Luke points out in his feature article in Educational Researcher (V40#8)income inequality, as measured by the GINI index and experienced by low social expenditures on health and welfare, rather than absolute poverty may be more important.

  • Estarianne said:

    Except that the quality of our math education DOES suffer comparatively. The math understanding required to become an elementary teacher is very basic, and many of the people teaching basic math concepts to our kids struggled to meet even those levels. Our society gjves anyone who struggles with math the “not good at math” out. This is even more serious for minority students.

    I agree with not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to improve our math education. It is important- not because US schools are bad, but because we should always be looking for ways to make them better.

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  • Stuart Buck said:

    “the least politically powerful and poorest resourced group of people—educators”

    In fact, when you combine the NEA’s and AFT’s political contributions between 1989 and 2012, teachers have by far more donations than any other entity in the United States. See And that’s only counting money. Teachers’ unions also bring tremendous mobilization and volunteer efforts to the table.

    Teachers’ unions are not unstoppable, and they don’t always get their way, but to describe them as anything but vastly powerful is simply wrong.

  • R.D. Nordgren said:

    Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons greatly adds to this discussion. Sahlberg discusses how educators in his homeland of Finland are actually embarrassed by the attention their high PISA scores bring them. They don’t want the world to think they teach to a test–on the contrary. The Finns educate the whole child which includes soft skills Dr. Zhao mentions in his post. And education is combined with a whole-person approach to social welfare which includes healthcare. Sahlberg is upset that U.S. policy makers only view the Finn story of reform through the lens of raising test scores, ignoring the rest of the picture; that is, education cannot be extracted from the social formula and examined as a separate entity. Systems Theory anyone? Sahlberg will be presenting at AERA…worth seeing.

  • Lishuai said:

    Here is some experience in Beijing. The rich students over there are always very busy. They keep learning from Monday to Friday, and at the weekend, their parents will take them to other classes, such as music, dance, painting, basketball, even hocky(although expensive).Students keep doing good at regular coursees, and catching up with diverse talents at the same time. So personally, I think what can be done here is we keep our way and focus on the teaching and learning quality in the classroom. Even make it tighter. Then we may see better results.

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