International School Rankings

The Competition Canard in Education
The Competition Canard in Education

Just going by the rankings, it could be construed that the U.S. system is failing American children and as a result, failing the nation. Not only is this misguided, but it does not paint an accurate picture of what is happening in schools internationally or in the U.S. itself. 

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama proclaimed that this is our generation’s “Sputnik moment.” Obama’s reference to the 1957 Sputnik launch, which initiated the space race and five subsequent decades of education policy reform, is just the latest in a long line of presidential administrations that have fallen back on international competition and education reform as a placard for their supposed responsible response to the nation’s needs.

It was perhaps President Reagan’s A Nation at Risk that made the “competition canard” a staple of American education policy. The report alarmingly said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Because of Sputnik and other competition-laden rhetoric, education reform and global economic competitiveness have earned a permanent position at the top of the national policy agenda.

President Obama’s statement, and countless others like it, focuses on education for global competition instead of focusing on two learning outcomes that are essential for the successful transition of American students to higher education and the global labor market: global cooperation and global citizenship.

Instead, popular media in the U.S., to our detriment, use internationally comparative evidence of student achievement, most notably the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), to shame and blame U.S. teachers and students for average or low rankings. However, what the media do not report is that these rankings are a poor reflection of the culture of teaching and learning in the U.S. and other national education systems participating in these assessments, despite the rich background of data that is available to contextualize these factors for each nation.

As with all standardized tests, cross-national assessments only measure what students know about a certain subject on a given day. This “snapshot” approach does not effectively measure what students know or their capacity to contribute to national economic, political or social growth. Focusing on the rankings as evidence of what is “wrong” with American public education fails to take into account all the things the U.S. system gets right.

Although Americans promulgate a culture of criticism around public education, if we walk into most public schools in the U.S., we see teachers challenging students to create, innovate and excel in core content areas as well as in arts and humanities—often in spite of enormous challenges. We see students actively engaged in service in their schools and communities to apply what they learn in the classroom to address and understand “real world” issues. This is all happening despite nearly two decades of federal funding cuts to American public education and education policy reforms focused on accountability but not on equality or equity. The problem in the U.S. has always been variability—not innovation, effort or activity.

In other words, unlike other countries’ education systems, ours has one of the widest gaps between high-performing and low-performing schools, teachers and students in the world. But this is not the fault of schools or educators; it is the fault of a national culture and the systems that reflect it, where inequity in education, housing, safety, health and economic opportunity is either accepted or ignored.

In spite of the variability problem in the U.S., the rankings from international assessments like TIMSS and PISA still show the U.S. is doing better than the majority of its international peers. No, the U.S. system does not rank at the top in cross-national assessments of student achievement in mathematics and science, but this does not mean that quality teaching and student learning are lacking. According to a recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, American parents rank the schools their children attend higher than they rank education as a whole nationwide. Not only does this demonstrate a common (mis)perception that American public schools are chronic losers, but it also highlights the fact that U.S. parents are generally happy with the quality of education their children receive in their own communities.

So what is the value of participating in international assessments of education if they just reproduce misconceptions about education among the general American public?

The answer is simple: public education in the U.S. can be strengthened by learning from its international peers, but not by the negative rhetoric associated with reductionist interpretations of international rankings of student achievement. The value of comparing the results of these international assessments is that they provide an array of complex data to inform practice, improve decision-making and share ideas among education policymakers, scholars and educators. By learning from our international counterparts, Americans can identify which educational policies, practices and curricula have the best chance of increasing outcomes in student performance, classroom teaching and lifelong learning.

For example, international evidence suggests that education systems that place a strong emphasis on writing across the curriculum, value teacher collaboration and shared decision-making, and focus on specific improvement goals generally report greater student learning outcomes.

But, more importantly, if Americans really do want to outperform the rest of the world in education, the best way to start is to learn how to be global citizens. Instead of asking where we rank and what we do wrong, Americans should be asking what we contribute and how we can improve our contributions—not only to our own families, communities and nation, but also to the global society, our political agenda and economic situation.

Just how do we do this? By learning how to cooperate with our international peers and incorporate those evidence-based methods and ideas into our own educational system and psyche that show how to improve life for everyone.

—By Associate Professor Alexander Wiseman and graduate student Emily Anderson, both of the Comparative and International Education Program.