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U.S. 15 and 16-year olds rank 36th of 65 countries in PISA Educational Achievement Tests

Education Efforts in the U.S. are a Resounding Failure

I’m not surprised. I have consistently blogged about the failed education system in the U.S. Just last week I blogged about the failure of our educational system as one of the reasons the U.S. concept of American Exceptionalism no longer is valid. We’ve tried it all to improve our kids’ educational achievement in the U.S. to no avail. We’ve tried “No Child Left Behind,” charter schools, “Race to the Top,’ and now common core standards, but nothing has worked.

The fact is nothing will work because our leaders are looking for answers to the disappointing results in all the wrong places. Some blame poverty in America and the failure to educate low income/socioeconomic disadvantaged students with the same quality that exists in high-income groups. Some say using tests to measure education achievement is wrong because test-taking results do not indicate whether American kids will be as or more successful than non-Americans once they enter the working arena. Those folks have a retrospective point of view and not a prospective one, which is needed to assess whether today’s education will give our kids the foundation to be future leaders in the global economic system of the 21st century.

U.S. students ranked 35th out of 65 countries in rankings in mathematics, reading, and science according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This places the U.S. below average on math and near the average on reading and science. The numbers are even more sobering when compared among only the 34 OECD countries. The United States ranked 26th in math — trailing nations such as the Slovakia, Portugal and Russia. What’s more, American high school students dropped to 21st in science (from 17th in 2009) and slipped to 17th in reading (from 14th in 2009), according to the results.

When it comes to mathematics, reading and science, young people in Shanghai are the best in the world, according to the survey. What does that say for our ability to compete with China for global economic dominance?

In all three subjects, Shanghai students demonstrated knowledge and skills equivalent to at least one additional year of schooling than their peers in countries like the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, East Asian kids scored better than the U.S. in all three subjects. Shanghai was first; Singapore second; Hong Kong third; Taiwan fourth; and South Korea was fifth.

Several European countries saw big gains in the test results: Poland, Germany and Ireland moved up in the rankings, and Vietnam, which administered the test for the first time, topped the U.S. in math and science.

I was interested to read the reactions of influential educators. American Federation of Teacher’s head Randi Weingarten used the scores to rally against test-based schooling initiatives that have been pushed by both the Bush and Obama administrations for years.

“While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools—has failed to improve the quality of American public education,” she said in a statement. “Sadly, our nation has ignored the lessons from the high-performing nations.”

Sadly, Ms. Weingarten knows nothing about education in the Asian world. I can tell you from teaching Asian kids in college for over 30 years, testing is the be all and end all for these kids. They hyper-ventilate to get high test scores and feel like a failure if they don’t. They may internalize bad results and feel like they have brought dishonor on their family. These feelings can be seen more acutely in first generation college-educated Asian kids.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said: “While we are seeing some encouraging progress on many important measures, the United States’ performance on the 2012 PISA is a picture of educational stagnation. This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world.”

The question is, Secretary Duncan, what are the best fixes for these disappointing results? A new mantra for educational achievement means nothing – i.e., race to the top; no child left behind. Throwing money at the problem won’t fix it. Having students evaluate their teachers is not the answer. Selecting some teachers for merit pay won’t work. We’re looking in the wrong places for the answer and that is why nothing will change; in fact, I predict the results will get worse for the U.S. over time.

The reason the results will get worse is virtually all of the countries at the top of the class have something to prove through hard work and applying themselves to the task at hand. Asian countries want to show they have the best educated students; it validates their system; it demonstrates the ability to lead the world economically. Former eastern bloc nations like Poland want to show they have successfully broken away from the old Soviet Union in educational achievement and should be seen as an up and coming economic power.

The ‘elephant in the room’ is the breakdown of ethics in the U.S. Ethics entails working diligently and the pursuit of excellence. I have met maybe 5% of college kids in the last ten or so years that tell me this is their motivation from an educational achievement perspective. A lesser percentage says their goal is learning for the sake of learning.  Most American kids are motivated by getting a high-paying job; better yet, one in which they don’t have to work too hard.

The underlying cause for the stagnant educational achievement of U.S. kids is the lack of a work ethic. Our 15 and 16-year olds have been raised in an era where parents do not instill the value of hard work for the sake of hard work – to learn, to mature, to improve oneself, and to contribute to the betterment of society.

In my classroom I have found that students tune me out very quickly. They don’t have the skill to focus and pay attention for more than about ten minutes, unless I do a song and dance routine in class or a ten-minute monologue.

Then there is the evil of electronic devices. When I tell students not to use electronic devices in class, unless it is to take notes, most aren’t complying. It’s obvious by the smiles on their faces that they are on Facebook or Twitter. My lectures are not that entertaining; I can’t sing or dance and I’ll leave the monologues to Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement warning doctors that kids should spend no more than two hours online per day. “Many parents are clueless about the impact media exposure can have on their children,” said Dr. Victor Strasburger, the lead author of the new policy. He said that under the new policy, those two hours include using the internet for entertainment, including Facebook, Twitter, TV and movies; online homework is an exception.

So, my final words are: Ethics Sage 2 parents: Limit Kids’ tweeting, texting and no smartphones, laptops out of bedrooms. #goodluckwiththat.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 4, 2013