Thursday, December 27, 2012

US schools perform extremely well on international tests

US students do well; Massachusetts students far outperform Finns
This is worth noting, as a counter to the usual scare stories about the failure of American schools and teachers: US students did really, really well on the recent TIMSS (math) and PIRLS (reading) tests.  Many individual states did even better. In our state, Massachusetts, the average score on the 8th grade math test was far better than that of Finland, a country with a comparable population. In fact, despite a continuing gap between the scores of white students and black students, the average math score for African-American 8th graders in Massachusetts was better than that of the average for all 8th graders in Finland.  It's very likely that if reading scores were available for Massachusetts, our students would have done better overall than Finnish students (a state-level reading score was only available for Florida, and Floridians scored as well as the Finns).


Junkets to Leafstrewn?
Perhaps the most important thing about this news is the way it has been reported in the mainstream press (1).  As usual, it is very important to read press reports about education, and everything else, with a skeptical eye. Some papers, like the DEtroit Free Press that I linked to before, covered the story reasonably well. Others, like the Times and the Post, stuck largely to the "School Failure" storyline.  Here's the headline in the Washington Post, for instance: "U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, reading, science."  A better headline might be: "U.S. students perform extremely well on international tests".

You might think that the press might switch the narrative from "Our schools are failing, so we need reform" to "Look, reform is working"--but a meme as well-established as the "failure" of US schools has so much momentum that it is, like the Titanic, almost impossible to turn.  If enough icebergs like these results come in, maybe the old meme will finally sink, and education experts can take junkets to Leafstrewn instead of junkets to Finland.

Now if we can just eliminate poverty...
On the other hand, these scores also remind us that there are wide gaps between rich kids and poor kids, and the best thing we could do to improve our students' academic achievement is reduce inequality.  If the US had the poverty levels of Finland, just think how well we'd do then!

1. Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler has done an excellent job of deconstructing the press coverage of these recent scores. 


  1. Have found your blogs full of insights. As an education researcher /author -- working in classrooms with students and teachers and getting lost in the stacks of the library -- I'm excited to read your thoughtful critiques of current learning research and it's haphazard application by policy makers and the press -- would like to connect? Can I email you or speak?
    Roger Essley

    1. Email: lornebucci (at) gmail (dot) com.