America’s Less-Than-Smartest Education System

I came across a great talk by Amanda Ripley about her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It is from C-SPAN in their coverage of this year’s National Book Festival (see video here).

She compares education systems in various countries. Her purpose seems to primarily be to understand the problems, challenges, and unique qualities of American education. In order to do this, she focuses on some of the best education systems in the world. It is the most intelligent and insightful analysis of education that I’ve come across. She also comes across as intellectually humble, something I always admire.

Here is a short video where she gives a brief introduction and overview:

The C-SPAN video happened to be playing on television while I was visiting my parent’s home. My mother likes C-SPAN. She was a public school teacher for her entire career. She has also been a conservative her entire life. She is critical of many things about public education, but she is still an ardent supporter of it, unlike my more libertarian father.

Amanda Ripley comes across as being somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, probably a fairly standard mainstream liberal. It was interesting that my mother agreed with everything Ripley spoke about. However, after the C-SPAN talk was over, both of my parents brought up the issue of tracking which they see as the solution. As that didn’t come up in the talk, I decided to buy the e-book and do a quick search. She does cover that issue in the book, but it isn’t what my parents would like to see. It doesn’t confirm their beliefs on this one aspect (pp. 137-138):

“Intuitively, tracking made sense. A classroom should function more efficiently if all the kids were at the same level. In reality, though, second tracks almost always came with second-rate expectations.

“Statistically speaking, tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect : Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Of course, it isn’t just my parents who love the idea of tracking. It is a mainstream position in the United States. Even many on the left will argue tracking is one of the answers to educational failure, although those on the right emphasize it the most. Conservatives say that some kids are just low IQ or lazy or untalented. Not all kids deserve equal education, because not all students are equal. In their minds, it would actually be unfair to treat all kids equally.

However, as this author demonstrates, it is precisely because Finland treats all students equally and gives all students equal opportunity that they have the greatest schools in the world. You go to one school in Finland and it is basically the same quality as any other. They direct their funding to where it is needed, not to where rich people send their kids to school.

No Finnish student gets permanently tracked, not even special education students, for in Finland they assume special education is a temporary condition. They have high expectations of all students and so all students improve, unlike in the US. Americans don’t realize how highly unusual is our version of tracking (pp. 138-139):

“When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations. Tracking took different forms in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Sweden. But that didn’t mean it was less powerful.

“Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries , including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material.

“Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.”

There are many things that are fundamentally different about the U.S. education system, like so much else in this country. The author notes that the American obsession about extracurricular activities is one of the most unusual aspects.

Americans are obsessed about school more than are the Finnish, but there is a disconnect in this obsession. U.S. teachers give more homework, for example, and yet in Finland students get higher quality homework that demands more challenging independent thought. Finnish schools are laidback by American standards and parents are almost entirely uninvolved, but what they do is heavily invest in quality everything, especially teachers (who get their teacher training in the Finnish equivalent of U.S. Ivy League colleges). They don’t waste their time and money on keeping students entertained with sports, clubs, and other activities.

In most countries in the world, children simply go to school to learn and nothing else. Foreign students who come to the U.S. observe how easy is education here. And U.S. students that travel to the countries with better education systems observe that the students there take education more seriously.

The U.S. is atypical partly because of its dark history of racial segregation. Obviously, this plays into the dysfunctional tracking system that directs most resources to certain students. This leaves a substandard education for the rest of the students, mostly poor and minority. Tracking directly fits into a system of social hierarchy and social control. Those put on the lower track have little expectations placed upon them, or rather a great many negative expectations forced upon them.

Low expectations goes hand in hand with lowered standards and results. This isn’t surprising for anyone who knows about the research on the power of expectations, from the Rosenthal-Pygmalion Effect to Stereotype Threat. Tracking institutionalizes some of the worst aspects of our society, but it isn’t just about the failure of American society. Tracking, generally speaking, is just a bad system in any society.

Lessening the emphasis on tracking has been a wild success in countries all around the world. Americans should take note (pp. 139-140):

“By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived.

“Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).

“Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $ 9,000 compared to around $ 11,000 in the richest school districts.”

Other countries came to realize tracking was ineffective, and so they changed their methods. For Americans, it has been just more cowbell (p. 140):

“That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.

“It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity— a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking— was a telltale sign of rigor.”

Many Americans, especially on the right, would argue these countries are successful because they are small and homogenous. They think that the main problem is that we have a large bureaucratic government that is trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all solution onto a diverse population. That of course misses the entire point of tracking. The U.S. has one of the least one-size-fits-all solutions in the world. Even ignoring that, can U.S. education problems be blamed on the government and on diversity?

To answer that question, I would put it into the context of what Ripley has to say about Singapore (pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.

“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

I doubt I’d want to live in Singapore, but it offers an interesting example. One of the points the author makes is that there are different ways to get high education results.

To Americans, Singapore seems authoritarian and dystopian. They have a highly centralized and powerful bureaucratic government. They don’t even have the benefit of a homogenous society.

That is everything that right-wingers use to rationalize America’s failing schools. And yet in Singapore it is the precise recipe for educational success.

It isn’t just about a few exceptional countries like Singapore. Diversity isn’t just that big of an issue. There are a high number of highly homogenous countries (homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc) that are extremely poor, have high rates of social problems, and measure low in their education systems. Sure, systems that work best in diverse societies likely will be different than what works in homogenous societies, but the basic point is that there are ways that both types of societies can attain very high standards of education.

Besides, even breaking down the U.S. education system into homogenous and diverse states still doesn’t explain this country’s low ranking in the world. Even many highly homogenous states (almost entirely white in some cases) don’t necessarily get all that great of results. She mentioned one state (one of the Northeastern states, as I recall) that had about average or slightly below average rankings in international comparisons. Even looking back at the supposed golden age of education during the low immigration mid-20th century doesn’t offer much solace. The U.S. never has had a top ranked grade school education system.

Diversity can’t be used as an excuse (p. 17):

“Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results . In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.”

Also, it can’t be blamed on poverty, typically associated with immigrants and minorities. Nor can it be blamed on the public schools where immigrants and minorities are concentrated. Ripley makes this very clear (p. 17):

“A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country . Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not a country has a diverse population or not, but what one does with the population one has. This relates to spending. More funding of education in itself doesn’t correlate to better results. Instead, it is about how that money is used and if it is used equitably to help all students (p. 160):

“The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation.

“Since black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids tended to come from less affluent families , they usually ended up in underresourced schools with more kids like them. Between 1998 and 2010, poor American students had become more concentrated in schools with other poor students.

“The biggest problem with this kind of diversity is that it wasn’t actually diverse. Most white kids had majority white classmates. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to attend majority black or Hispanic schools in 2005 than they were in 1980.

“Populating schools with mostly low-income, Hispanic, or African-American students usually meant compounding low scores, unstable home lives, and low expectations. Kids fed off each other, a dynamic that could work for good and for ill. In Poland, kids lost their edge as soon as they were tracked into vocational schools; likewise, there seemed to be a tipping point for expectations in the United States. On average, schools with mostly low- income kids systematically lacked the symptoms of rigor. They had inconsistent teaching quality, little autonomy for teachers or teenagers, low levels of academic drive, and less equity. By warehousing disadvantaged kids in the same schools, the United States took hard problems and made them harder.”

Once again, dysfunctional tracking in the U.S. is rooted in a history of systemic and institutional racism. Kids are tracked both in the formal and informal sense. Race and class segregation divide up students, and most of the funding is going to wealthier students and white students. It isn’t necessarily that all that extra funding is being used well by those wealthier school districts, but that the poorest school districts have so little money to use for anything, whether used well or badly. Too much funding isn’t necessarily helpful. Too little funding, however, is obviously problematic.

The discussion in America tends to focus only on the average amount of funding for each American child, all the while ignoring the vast disparity of funding between populations. This is how serious attention on the real issues gets avoided. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the historical inequalities that are continually reinforced, not just inequalities between wealth and poverty but inequalities of political power and real world opportunities, inequalities of racial prejudice and privilege. These are among the most politically incorrect issues in this country.

As all of this shows, there is more going on here than can be understood in the ideological frame of mainstream American politics (pp. 163-164):

“The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States— the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods— was as toxic as funding inequities . There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong. The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. Parents did matter, and so did health care and nutrition. Obviously.

“But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students, just as Vuorinen feared. Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in the coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

“In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but it stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for other kids who had done well in the classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable. The human brain depends on labels and patterns; if a researcher (or cultural narrative) offers teachers a compelling pattern, they will tend to defer to it.

“What did it mean, then, that respected U.S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything else? What did it mean if teachers were led to believe that they could only be expected to do so much, and that poverty was usually destiny?

“It may be human nature to stereotype, but some countries systematically reinforced the instinct, and some countries inhibited it. It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset.

“Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)”

This isn’t something unique to particular societies. It isn’t as if we must resign ourselves to a lesser fate in the global scheme of things. There is evidence that high education standards can even be achieved demographically diverse groups of students in the United States (p. 218):

“Unlike most schools in America, including the best public charter schools, these new schools were actually diverse, in the literal sense. Moskowitz wanted a true mix of white, Asian, African-American , and Hispanic students at a range of income levels, and she got it. That is how kids learn best— together, with a mix of expectations, advantages, and complications— according to the hard-earned lessons of countries around the world.

“There are stories like this all over the country: Success Academy charter schools in New York City, the closest thing to Finland in the United States; William Taylor, a public-school teacher who has almost Korean expectations for his low-income students in Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, a leader who has dared to raise the bar for what teachers must know, just like reformers in Finland and Korea.

“These world-class educators exist, but they are fighting against the grain of culture and institutions. That fight drains them of energy and time . If they ever win, it will be because parents and students rose up around them, convinced that our children cannot only handle a rigorous education but that they crave it as never before.”

It isn’t just that we Americans have low expectations of American students, especially poor and minority students. The real problem is we have low expectations for our entire society. We expect failure at a collective level, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.