An International Perspective


On Monday, the results of the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). As expected, the United States finished somewhere in the middle. This is unacceptable, as we have always had the highest scores (untrue). Education “experts” from both sides of the political spectrum use these results to go on the attack. American schools are in decline. We are being outpaced by all of these other countries. Or just the city of Shanghai, for that matter. One conservative calls this the new “Sputnik” of the 1950’s. He calls for a revolution in American education, the same kind that led to NASA putting a man on the moon. Otherwise, our children’s children will be working for people in Shanghai.

We need to focus on reading, math, testing, and judging teachers through test scores. I attended a stakeholder meeting yesterday where TEA is moving exactly that direction. More and more outsiders have appointed themselves experts. Some (like Bill Gates and Michael Milken) can even buy their way into public education and use our public schools as their personal laboratories. Texas education is facing a severe financial crisis, and teachers are facing the real possibility of pay cuts and layoffs. So lets consider two quotes from the world’s major newspapers. They came on the same day, which was the day the PISA scores were released. Each looks at the tests differently. I see the same thing.

The first quote is from the New York Times:

Shanghai students outscored peers from 65 countries on reading, science and math exams in China’s first foray into international standardized testing. The Program for International Student Assessment was administered to 15-year-old students. Shanghai students were tops in math, even besting Singapore, and came out ahead of South Korea in reading and Finland in science.

Shanghai’s scores were “jaw-dropping.” They far outpaced other countries. Of course, Shanghai is a city, not a country, and it is one of two educational hubs. China refused to let the whole country be compared with the rest of the world. But that’s not the point. Singapore focuses on competitive testing. Their school days are very long. There are no weekends. Drill and kill. Repeat.

Finland used their whole country and came in second. Here’s the second quote, from the London Guardian (UK):

Finland’s schools are considered among the best in the world but contrast sharply with more rigid systems. School days are short and interspersed with activities. Children start school at age 7 and get a free education up to the university level. Students take one set of national school exams when they leave school, and results are not made public. The country’s education success is partly attributed to the fact that all teacher training occurs at universities and a master’s degree is mandatory for every teacher.

Finland has a fantastic education system. That is unquestionable. Suddenly Shanghai has a fantastic system. What could be a common factor here?

Finland pays their teachers 141% of the per capita Gross Domestic Product (Texas pays 71%). Shanghai teachers…received huge raises over the past three years. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.

About Paul T. Henley, Ph. D.
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