Saturday, September 21, 2013

Do Recent School Reforms Enhance or Hinder Real Learning?

Yesterday, I posted a question (below) to the Facebook pages of Badass Teachers’ Association and In Defense of Teachers:

I was curious—and still am—about what other teachers think. How would you answer from what you’re seeing?

Consider all the reforms since you started teaching, whether it be increasing use of technology, more charter schools, the push to grade schools, new ways to certify teachers, emphasis on standardized testing, and many more.

Do you think learning, which is the true goal of education has been greatly enhanced, stayed the same, or been hindered?

That’s my concern: that recent “education reforms” have hindered learning. It’s the same concern I was feeling in May 2008 when I retired from teaching. And I loved teaching.

First to respond was Nomde Plume, an educator with twenty years’ experience: “No question about it—hindered.”

Peg Cummings Carbone was second: “Without a doubt, hindered.”

Melanie Miday-Stern was third: “Hindered—15 years…CCSS is CRAP.”

Capital letters! I think Melanie feels as I did. (I have noted some of my concerns in earlier posts.) But is it possible all of us are wrong? I find myself hoping we are. I hope our system of public education is on the threshold of great improvement. I just don’t see it. Earnestly, honestly, I do not see it.

Nomde Plume added details in a second response:  
Hindered from real, effective, engaging teaching due to over-testing, ratings tied to tests, constant references to ‘data driven instruction,’ [including] grouping based on test data, data walls in classroom, data walks, bulletin board standards, lesson plan standards, quarterly goals standards (meaning these are all for someone else and not for teaching or the kids learning)…The requirements are endless and have nothing to do with actually teaching students. There is so much more! I am too tired to write about it. I was in at 6:30 yesterday and today, worked last night till after 10:00 p.m. And today till six. If my tired brain can actually calculate this, I worked 27 hours in two days…

Elizabeth Mays jumped into the conversation: “Not only hindered, but because so many ‘latest and greatest’ [reform ideas] have gone through the pipeline, I try to ignore them the best I can…since it will be replaced with some other ‘latest and greatest.’”

I can add from my experience here, that in the late 80s, the State of Ohio designed its own Ninth Grade Proficiency Tests. These tests were supposed to greatly improve education in the Buckeye State.

After a little more than a decade, these Ohio tests were scrapped and replaced by new tests tied to No Child Left Behind. And we all know how NCLB worked out.

Next to answer my original question was Margaret Sanderson: “Hindered.”

Ed Dziedzic took his turn: “Hindered. But when I started an old timer told me every time some damn fool new program came out ‘this too shall pass.’”

Priscilla Sanstead weighed in: “The whole purpose of Badass Teachers Association is to fight CC$$. ‘Hindered’ is a candyass, lightweight term for the child abuse that IS Common Core.”

I agree with Ms. Sanstead and particularly like her $ signs, because I think corporate school reform is a growing danger. But I keep thinking maybe I’m wrong. The education reforms of recent years seem crazy to me.

I don’t feel crazy, though. (I think my wife would tell me.)

Megan Bartley commented next: “Well it has been one hell of a waste of money. That is for sure.”

(In 2012, it was estimated that states were spending $1.7 billion annually on standardized tests. All those tests—tied to NCLB—are now recycled paper.)

Maybe Barbara K. Yohnka, next to comment, would respond favorably. One can always hope!

Nope:  “No question—hindered.”

Lauren Green-Mainowski: “Hindered! With all the assessing who has time to teach?”

Lauren’s comment reminds me of the dilemma I faced my final year in the classroom, in 2008. Our entire social studies department was taken out of class for three days so we could design practice tests to prepare students for the social studies section of the Ohio Assessment Test (OAT). We devoted three more days to giving the practices tests. In May, our students spent four more days taking the OAT.

So we lost ten days to learning, just so we could prove our students were learning! Was I crazy? I told my principal I thought this was educational malpractice. Is Barbara crazy, too? Is Lauren?

Maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe America’s teachers are crazy.

Lauren offered this additional insight: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m on board with the idea of CCSS. I just wish we could have the resources and be left alone enough to actually teach that way, theme teaching is how I was raised and I like to think I turned out pretty well and loved learning.”

What! “Loved learning?” How do we measure that when it comes to testing?

Joan Jefferson Lanier Bennett was next to offer an opinion: 
The amount of paperwork to support all the ‘data based’ teaching with proof you have data, not to mention days lost testing to see if there has been progress, which generates more data to record/put in portfolios, HINDERS time to plan and execute real teaching and student interaction.

And here’s a real kicker. Joan continued: “I am on year 54—yes, I retired once and thought I was dying of boredom—and I base my remarks on all those years’ experience!”

If Joan is right, I’m more worried than ever. And I think she’s right.

Anna Davis agreed: 

Hindered, I have been teaching for seven years, all of it in the data driven frenzy. During pre-service I was told that the district who hired me would help me develop as a professional. The only thing that seems to matter is how high we can get the numbers. I get canned lessons to teach but very little real professional development.

I may steal that phrase: “data driven frenzy.”

Holly Clouse followed:  
You know, it comes down to thinking, asking, trying, adjust—that’s what I do with my kids. The whole corporate takeover, robo-thinking, scripted plans are just stupid. Don’t get me started on data collecting—the pendulum has swung too far right and will swing back. Meanwhile, I’ll teach my kids to think, question, try, adjust and celebrate. I refuse to let idiots ruin my students’ education. 

Tera Wolf had this to say: “[I teach] Special Ed students only: I would say services are better for Special Ed students now but the testing mania has hurt them.”

Amen to that. I suspect almost all teachers would agree with Ms. Wolf that schools do a much better job integrating Special Ed students in regular classrooms now, than they did when I started teaching in 1975.

Megan Bartley rejoined the conversation:  
The only good data is the data you collect as a teacher, day to day in your classroom. All of the rest is fluff! Administrators should hold teachers’ feet to the fire to show how they are using information on formative assessments to help individual students. Time spent on Marzanoing and NWEAfests and MAPtatic Multiple Choice Extravaganzas is a pure waste when the rubber hits the road.

Over on the page for In Defense of Teachers, Geralyn Pfaff added: “Greatly hindered. Special education students should not be forced to take the same extremely difficult standardized tests as their typically-developed peers. And Special Ed teachers should not have to have their livelihoods held accountable to those scores.”

Charmaine Wilks went with the one word I fear says it all: “Hindered.”

Finally, back on the BAT page, Kelly Braun offered a little reassurance: “Post [the comments] after you write it and we will all badass back you up.”

So: am I crazy? Let me say again:  I loved teaching. I never doubted that what I did in my classroom mattered.

In my heart I truly felt focusing on Songhai trade and Shay’s Rebellion (two topics covered on the social studies section of the OAT) might not be the best way to enhance real, broad-based learning.

In any case, I retired in 2008. In 2009 the social studies section of the OAT was killed by the State of Ohio which had designed it and implemented only five years before. Today the entire OAT is dead. 

No Child Left Behind, with all its emphasis on standardized tests, is no longer among the living.

Coming soon to a school near you: New tests! New test preparation! New expenses tied to all the testing! New and onerous paperwork for teachers and administrators, and Common Core Curriculum!

Call it the Standardized Testing Zombie, the creature it was almost impossible to kill!

If I’m wrong, if I’m crazy, I hope real teachers will take time to weigh in and reassure me. Care to comment, anyone?


Addendum: Over the course of three weeks, more than 1,700 people took a look at this post. Eventually, Kevin Barre, a principal, weighed in with a pro-reform response.

The tone was probably harsher than he intended and he went on to qualify his comments in response to questions and comments by other educators. I still have my doubts, but, again, I hope he turns out to be correct. I fear that the future of U.S. education hinges on getting this question right. He explained: 
I’m actually enjoying the dialogue created in these OTES pre and post conferences. News flash: principals that whine about the time they are spending and teachers barking about the extra paperwork are forgetting that time management is part of the game. I’ve got 14 years in the biz, and I can promise you that the extra five hours of educational dialogue this takes per teacher only cuts into the negative and idle time wasted daily in a school building. Yes, I said it. It’s holding people accountable, I think, once people get over the insecurities of change, they’ll see how it’s good for growth and amazing for kids. I believe many people, admins included, need this push to reinvigorate growth. It’s a breath of fresh air, pedagogically speaking. It makes us talk.

Anyway, I know, because I taught history, that in matters of opinion we can almost never prove which side is right.

I will say it again, however. I fear the testing trend is doing irrevocable damage in U. S. education.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Who Were Those People Who Died on 9/11?

SIXTEEN YEARS YEARS SINCE the attacks on 9/11 and it still seems like it happened this morning.

I retired from teaching nine years ago. But if I was in the classroom today here’s what I’d be doing. I’d be showing a compilation of film clips recorded in 2001. I taught seventh grade. Today’s seventh graders weren’t even born on that fated day in September. I’d show scenes filled with people falling, falling, from the North and South Towers. What moments of terror those had to have been for desperate victims. And I’d add this detail—because I’d want the kids to have a sense of what it was like for real people. I’d tell them some of those who leaped from those burning buildings were holding hands, perhaps with friends, perhaps with loved ones, where they had been trapped by smoke and flames.

It’s this small gesture that might touch the hearts of kids sixteen years later and provide a sense of what a loss our nation suffered.

Who were these people who died?

Steven Coakley was coming off his regular shift with Engine Company 217 in Brooklyn just as the first plane struck. On five separate occasions as a part of his job he had helped deliver babies. This was different and Coakley and the rest of Engine 217 rushed to the scene. Sal Fiumefreddo, a telephone technician, had a one-day assignment to install equipment at the trade centers. Divorced and feeling lonely, he had met Joan Chao at a backyard barbecue the previous summer. Now, on a crisp day in September, the couple was getting ready to celebrate their first anniversary. Gary Bird was starting a new job with Marsh & McClennan.

Normally, he worked out of Phoenix.

On this day, however, he was scheduled for a meeting at the World Trade Center, beginning at 8:15 a.m.

Let’s remember them. Let’s remember Jill Campbell, the young mother, whose son Jake was learning to crawl. (She didn’t live long enough to find out, but he crawled for the first time that day.) Let’s remember Timothy J. Finnerty. A bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, we can assume he was hard at work on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center. Just three days earlier he had enjoyed himself at his cousin’s wedding. His wife, Theresa, remembered him cutting up, always his style, and doing the “Lawn Mower Dance,” followed by the “Sprinkler Dance” at the reception.

He was one of 658 employees of his company who perished.

AT A FUNERAL LATER, Keith Wiswall spoke fondly of his father—and how much he liked working in his lawn. One day, Keith looked out a window and saw Dad using a shop vacuum to suck up berries from a neighbor’s tree, because they were falling on his grass. David Wiswall was 54 when he died. No one has vacuumed the lawn since.

Kristin Walsh remembers her mother, Nancy, bringing Carol Flyzik home and introducing her as “her girlfriend.” It meant an adjustment but she and her two brothers came to love their stepmother. Flyzik was one of 76 regular passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 11, headed for the West Coast on a business trip. At 8:46 a. m. she perished when the aircraft crashed into the North Tower. Amy Sweeney was an attendant on the same flight, one of eleven crew members. When hijackers took over she kept calm and contacted ground supervisors, asking them to notify the F.B.I. Her grace and bravery in a terrible time were no surprise to those who knew her. She died without having a chance to see her children, Anna, 6, and son, Jack, 4, grow up.

(Seth McFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, was meant to be aboard Flight 11 but arrived at the airport too late.)

Mayra Valdes-Rodriguez, last seen alive on the 78th floor as she hustled other survivors down the stairs of the South Tower, was known for contagious laughter. She never made it out. We know Maria Benavente removed her shoes to speed her descent from the same building. It wasn’t enough. She still didn’t get out. Bill Biggart, a photo-journalist, rushed to the scene in Lower Manhattan. After the South Tower fell he phoned his wife to say he was safe. “I’m with the firefighters,” he explained.

Nothing at all to worry about.

When the North Tower came down he and the firefighters around him died in the collapse. Joe Maloney, a firefighter and Mets fan was killed. Assistant Fire Chief Gerard Barbara, a Yankees fan, was killed. Mike Carroll, a fifteen-year veteran with Ladder Co. 3, died along with hundreds of firefighters. Since his remains could not be found a friend from his softball team carried a helmet down the aisle at his funeral mass.

Lincoln Quappe, another FDNY veteran, interviewed for a story in March, had told a reporter, “Every fire is scary. That’s the way it is. You’re a damned liar if you say you’re not scared.” Even a little fire could get a guy killed. “It all comes down to fate,” he added. Quappe was responding on 9/11, not to a little fire, but to a huge one, unlike anything he had ever seen.

Fate caught him up and swept him away.

STEVEN CAFIERO FIRST “MET” HIS GIRLFRIEND on the Internet. A year passed before they had a chance to speak in person. In the weeks leading up to 9/11 they were talking about marriage and planning for children. Peter Gyulavary had also been blessed by fate, having met his American wife while she was vacationing in Australia. They settled down in New York City and had a daughter, Geniveve, who turned 13 around the time of the attacks. Eskedar Melaku, came to this country from Ethiopia to attend college and decided to remain in America. Emerita de la Pena and Judith Diaz Sierra were fast friends and co-workers, each serving as maid of honor at the other’s wedding. James Martello, a former Rutgers linebacker, liked to coach his 7-year-old son's football team when he wasn't at work. Sheila Barnes was a fanatic about clipping coupons and saving money.

None survived.

Jerrold Paskins, 57, was in New York on 9/11 to help complete an insurance audit. His remains were identified two months later—when a lucky 1976 bicentennial silver dollar he carried turned up at Ground Zero. Christine Egan, born in Hull, England, was visiting her brother Michael in New York. That morning he decided to take her up to the restaurant, “Windows on the World,” to get a cup of coffee and a view of the city.

Moments before the North Tower collapsed, Michael managed to reach his wife by phone. “You made it,” she responded with immense relief. “No, we’re stuck,” he admitted. They were still on the line when his wife watched in horror on television as the building collapsed.

Orasri Liangthanasarn, a native of Thailand and a recent graduate of New York University, a new administrative assistant at “Windows on the World” died along with the Hulls. No one working or dining in the restaurant on 9/11 survived.

Peter Hanson, a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, his wife Sue Kim Hanson, a native of Korea with a degree in microbiology, and their daughter Christine Hanson, two-and-a-half years old, were aboard United Flight 175, originally scheduled to fly from Boston to Los Angeles. Paige Farley-Hackel was supposed to be aboard. She and her sister Ruth McCourt were taking Ruth’s daughter, Juliana McCourt, 4, on a trip to Disneyland. At the last minute, Paige realized she could use frequent flier miles and switched to American Airlines Flight 11. They planned to meet up in California. Both planes, in a cruel twist, were taken over by Osama bin Laden’s men and sent hurtling into buildings.

HILARY STRAUCH, A NEW JERSEY SIXTH GRADER, was twelve years old on September 11. She had to watch on television at school as the tower where her dad, George Strauch, worked went down in dust and mangled metal and ruin. Frank Martini and Pablo Ortiz, both fathers, could have escaped. Instead, they stuck around and used a crowbar to help free at least fifty people trapped in the North Tower. Beth Logler, 31, ran cross-country in high school. Now she was planning a wedding for December 30, 2001. She wasn’t quite fast enough to make it to safety. Sara Manley Harvey, a Georgetown graduate, had been married a month. The magenta-colored napkins at the reception had matched the roses carried by flower girls. Robert A. Campbell, 25, was a painter and window washer at the World Trade Center. His parents think he was working on the roof that morning. Brian P. Williams was a high school football star back in his Covington, Kentucky, and moved to the Big Apple to find work. Joseph J. Hasson III survived a terrible car wreck his freshman year of college.

Sixteen years later his time ran out in New York.

Brad Vadas found himself trapped in the smoke and ruins on the 88th floor, just above where the plane struck the South Tower. He managed to leave a phone message on his fiancĂ© Kris McFerren’s answering machine: “Kris, there’s been an explosion. We’re trapped in a room. There’s smoke coming in. I don’t know what's going to happen. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.” He promised he’d try to get out, but to be safe added, “I love you. Goodbye.” Ed McNally called his wife, too, telling her her he was in trouble, trapped by flames on the floors below. He told her where to find his life insurance papers. Then he admitted he’d been planning a surprise trip to Rome for her fortieth birthday.

“I feel silly, Liz,” he added, “you’ll have to cancel that.”

WHO WERE ALL THESE VICTIMS? Rick Rescelora survived heavy fighting in Vietnam but died in the 9/11 attack. Mike Warchola had one shift left until he retired from the New York Fire Department. Port Authority police officer Dominick Pezzulo was trying to free two trapped officers from the wreckage of the South Tower when the North collapsed and he was killed by falling beams. John Perry was turning in retirement papers to the New York Police Department when the first plane struck. He asked for his badge back and raced to the scene. Moira Smith, a blond policewoman, was last seen helping injured victims out of the lobby of the South Tower moments before it came crashing to earth. Ed Nichols, for one, was bleeding from head, arm and abdomen when Smith took him gently by the elbow and led him to safety. Then she turned and reentered the lobby. About that time eyewitness saw melting aluminum pouring out of a gash on the 80th floor where the hijacked aircraft had hit.

In a 911 call shortly after, an unidentified woman trapped high up in the tower reported the floor under her was collapsing. Moments later, Greg Milanowycz, trapped on the 93rd floor, called his father and reported, “The ceiling is falling, the ceiling is falling.” Then the Tower collapsed.

At 9:37 a third plane, a Boeing 757, carrying 57 passengers and crew, crashed into the Pentagon, killing all aboard and 125 Americans on the ground. Cheryle Sincock had been at work inside for hours because she liked to get an early start whenever possible. Husband Craig, a computer scientist for the United States Army, usually came to work later. Now, with the Pentagon billowing black smoke, he found himself caught on the D. C. Metro as it shut down for security reasons. He sprinted two miles, cutting across highways and through Arlington National Cemetery. He would help with rescue attempts until 11 p. m., go home for a brief rest, and return at 4 a. m., hopeful that he might find his wife.

Cheryle didn’t survive.

TODD BEAMER, YOU MAY RECALL, was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93. His widow, Lisa, would tell reporters later that Todd “really didn’t do much of anything without a plan.” Her husband was one of the leaders of a passenger revolt to try to regain control of Flight 93 before the hijackers could destroy it.

A phone operator heard him ask others, including big Jeremy Glick, a former high school wrestler and judo champion, and Mark Bingham, an old rugby player: “Are you guys ready? O. K. Let’s roll.”

And roll they did.

Although they couldn’t save themselves they did bring down Flight 93, before it could do any additional damage.

P. S. Had a nice note on Facebook today. Lynzi Beadle wrote:

I will never forget where I was 12 years ago on this day. The first towers were hit when I was in gym class and I didn’t find anything out until English class. Our principal and assistant principal came and talked to our class. I remember being very confused and didn’t fully understand until lunch where everyone was able to see a white screen with the news displayed on it. I’ll NEVER forget this day because of my social studies teacher. I had his class after lunch and he was very upset and explained things clearer to us 7th graders. Mr. Viall set the tone for all of us and I now will never forget how important this day is.
Thank you, to all the men and women that day who sacrificed their lives to save others. Thank you to all the firemen, police officers, doctors, nurses and the brave souls that stood up to the hijackers. Today I ask [everyone] to pray for all the families that have been affected by 9/11. Thanks to all the service men and women who have been deployed overseas to keep our freedom. I’m a very grateful citizen. Thank you! 

A number of my former Loveland students have served in the military since that terrible day sixteen years ago.

Seth Mitchell, for one died in action. Kelly Horton Allen, Chis Tobias, Chuck Garrett, Mark Jacquez, and I’m sure others I don’t know about, have served bravely in the fight against global terrorism that continues today. Many young Americans are serving in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as you finish this sentence now.

(Missy Hollingsworth, a former student notified me after reading this blog and mentioned three more Loveland grads who served: Drew Hildebrand, Justin Orr and Kurt Davis.)

Checking my Facebook feed: I should add Adam Davis, Todd Huntley, Landon Cheben, Ryan Harvey, Phil McDaniel, Loren Baldwin, Joe Shipp, Erik Conover, Toby Moses, Bobby Wassel and Brady Poe have all served or are serving.

No doubt many others have or are.

We should remember all those who died so tragically sixteen years ago today and all those who serve on this black anniversary day.

Falling victim in New York.

NYFD chaplain hit and killed by falling body.

U. S. Marine serving in Afghanistan, 2013.


If you are a teacher and interested in other materials like this, written for middle school students, visit my page: Middle School History and Tips for Teachers.

Readers might also find my book on teaching moving, funny and informative: Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Are Poor Public Schools Killing the U. S. Economy?

The National Football League has no trouble finding good workers to put on the field.
When it comes to team gear they can sell:  teams look to China.

Public school teachers have heard this explanation before. Why is the U. S. economy tanking? Because the nation’s public schools stink. 

The case was outlined again in the New York Times recently.

In an editorial titled: “The Great Stagnation of American Education,” Robert J. Gordon, a professor at Northwestern, lamented the fact that our nation no longer leads the world in education. Lead? According to Gordon we’re falling farther and farther behind. Our high school dropout rate is too high. We don’t graduate enough high school students with the skills in math and science and critical thinking that businesses claim they need.

The U. S. is even falling behind in the production of college graduates! For decades we led in that category. Today we’re in 16th place.

How bad is the situation?

Dr. Gordon continues: “The Program for International Student Assessment [PISA] tests have consistently rated American high schoolers as middling at best in reading, math and science skills, compared with their peers in other advanced economies.” On the PISA test in 2012, our fifteen-year-olds finished tied for 15th in reading. They were tied for 31st in math and ranked 23rd in science out of sixty-five nations and cities tested.

Public school teachers, feel free to pause a moment and wipe your eyes and blow your noses if you’re weeping. It could be worse. How do you think Israeli teachers feel? Israeli fifteen-year-olds finished 37th in reading, 42nd in math and 42nd in science.

If Vladimir Putin was reading the Times at breakfast he probably choked on his sausage. The Russian Federation finished a dismal 43rd in reading, 38th in math and 39th in science. Luckily, both Israel and Russia still have plenty of nuclear weapons.

What other nations looked bad when PISA scores were posted? Mexico ranked 48th, 50th and 50th. They were also 33rd out of 34 advanced nations in high school graduation rates.

Indonesia was near the bottom in reading, math and science: 57th, 61st, 60th.

Bangladesh was not rated.

Dr. Gordon went to great lengths to explain how, for more than a century, gains in productivity in the United States were tied directly to rising educational attainment by workers. Now our education progress is stalled and so is our economy.

According to this line of reasoning the failure of schools explains why unemployment remains high in this country (7.4% in July). Too many workers lack skills to fill high-tech jobs in fields like computer science and engineering. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about how hard it is to find high school graduates to fill modern factory jobs or train as machinists. Business people would like you to know they are really, really trying. They just can’t find enough educated workers.

Damn teachers!!

Monday, I decided to do a little checking. I was visiting a Hallmark store to pick up a card for the parents of a new baby. I noticed a coffee mug with the words “Proud Mother of a U. S. Marine” painted on the side. When I turned it over it said: Made in China. That just seemed wrong to me. But I suppose, it takes all kinds of math and science skills to mass-produce coffee mugs and get them painted.

I had a similar experience when I bought Cincinnati Bengals gear at the start of this season. I selected a team jersey, cap, and an A. J. Green action figure. All three were made in Finland, because Finland’s fifteen-year-olds consistently have PISA scores near the top in all three categories.

Ha, ha. I’m joking.

All three were made in China.

So, let's strip this schools-are-failing-and-businesses-are-really-trying argument down to it’s underwear (Made in China). Suddenly, you realize that the idea American workers are in trouble because schools haven’t prepared them for a global economy might be absurd. Unless you want schools to prepare them to earn $1.36 per hour, which is what workers make in China. Or less in Bangladesh:  where there has been talk about raising the minimum wage of $37 per month. Maybe that’s why Walmart, Kohl’s and J. C. Penny all have contracts with Bangladeshi factories. Looking for workers with superior math, science and reading skills, are we?

The U.N. estimates that 58% of the adult population of Bangladesh is illiterate.

What about the idea that kids in other advanced nations are scoring higher on the PISA test and therefore business people have no trouble finding skilled Belgian or Hungarian workers? As already mentioned, according to the European Commission figures for July 2013 U. S. unemployment remained elevated at 7.4%. You can go back and look at PISA scores and see Hungarian students beat ours in math (490-487) and science (503-502).

Unemployment in Hungary was significantly higher:  10.4%.

Belgian students out-scored American students in all three PISA categories—and unemployment was higher: 8.9%.

Conversely, the combined PISA score of American fifteen-year-olds (1489), looked stellar compared to a score of 1472, racked up doltish Luxembourg fifteen-year-olds. Yet in Luxembourg most of those dolts were finding jobs (5.7% unemployment).

The more you study the relationship between national economies and PISA scores the more tenuous the idea that scores matter becomes. In July Austria had the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union (4.8%). Oddly enough, our teens trounced theirs in reading (500-470), got beat a little in math (487-496) but made it up with a win in science (502-494).

Finland, Korea and Japan consistently rank near the top in PISA. Still, this success has not translated into robust economic growth. A look at World Bank figures for GDP growth (see below) show almost an inverse relationship.

If education is the key, then how is Peru outperforming Poland? How has Peru managed to do so five years running? How did Sri Lanka beat Switzerland? How does economic growth in Bangladesh dwarf growth in Finland?

Could the truth be more obvious? This has almost nothing to do with the failure of schools or teachers and much to do with the greed of corporations. The United States didn’t lose hundreds of thousands of factory jobs to Mexico over the last fifteen years because American business leaders said, “Look, we need to find more educated workers.” We lost jobs—like a Ford Motors engine production plant—because Mexican workers work cheaper.

Cheap wins. Not educated.

Still don’t believe it? Try scouring your home as an experiment. Or take a look around when you’re at Lowes Home Improvement, looking for light bulbs, or picking up a plastic ice tray at Krogers. Or just head for the GAP and try on some jeans. See how many products carry the tag: Made in Finland. Or: Made in Estonia, or Made in Lichtenstein. Students in all three nations beat ours in reading, science and math.

Little good did it do them.

GDP Growth %:  2008-2012

Czech Rep.
Sri Lanka



If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at and I can probably send you a copy direct, a little more cheaply. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.