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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 12/11/2010

'If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center. He can be reached at This also appeared on Huffington Post.

By Kevin G. Welner
According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the PISA scores released this past Tuesday were "a massive wake-up call." The scores show American students holding relatively steady in the middle of the pack of the developed nations taking the international exam.

I can't figure out what to make of Duncan's response. Certainly he knows that the 15-year-old Americans taking this exam grew up in schools dominated by the high-stakes testing of No Child Left Behind. He must also know that the other main trend in education during these students' schooling was a great increase in charter schools and other forms of school choice.

One might think, then, that the massive wake-up call he's experiencing would sound something like Will Rogers' wisdom: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

Alas, that's not what Secretary Duncan's wake-up call is apparently telling him. It sounds more like, "If high-stakes tests directed at schools didn't work, let's intensify the policy and add high stakes for teachers."

He's apparently hearing a charter-school siren as well, telling him that lifting state caps on charters will somehow increase overall quality in a sector that segregates and stratifies but doesn't improve overall test scores.

There's a weird thing going on here with test scores, isn't there? We turn to them when they seem to support our pre-existing policy agenda. But we ignore or denounce them when we don't like what they have to say. So let me acknowledge that, to some extent, I'm being facetious.

The United States' scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) don't represent a crisis. Yes, the scores do mean something, but we shouldn't blind ourselves to other information. Go down to your local school and judge for yourself whether you see students who are engaged and learning -- that'll tell you a lot more than the PISA. Similarly, the fact that charters don't outperform (and probably do underperform) other public schools on standardized tests should mean less to a parent than a visit to her local charters and neighborhood schools.

Before putting much stock in our new PISA scores, do yourself a favor and PLEASE go read a 2005 article from the late-great Jerry Bracey, called Education's Groundhog Day." Then phone up Secretary Duncan and urge him to read it.

Whatever we think of these tests, however, there's a hypocrisy emanating from Washington, D.C. (yes, that's shocking news) that we shouldn't ignore. Secretary Duncan is telling teachers and schools that they should live and die by students' standardized test scores. But when it comes to charter schools and when it comes to the record of two-decades of test-based accountability reforms, he won't heed the clear wake-up call from those tests: It's not working.

Either the scores should be trusted, or not.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 11, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, Kevin Welner, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  PISA scores, arne duncan, nclb, no child left behind, pisa, school reform  
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There are several outstanding articles from this week on the PISA scores from the perspective of scholars familiar with Chinese education and they all argue that China's test-obsessed culture is the last thing we want to emulate. Here is one from the Wall Street Journal:

Incidentally, is it just me, or does it seem like the DoE is going to spin this story no matter how it plays out? If the PISA scores are good, Duncan will spin it as a validation of his test-driven policies. If PISA scores are bad, Duncan will spin it as a crisis which demands more testing. Talk about a lose-lose.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | December 11, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

"If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

Let's hear it for common sense.... Arne Duncan apparently has neither common sense nor the preparation(education+ substantive experience)one would hope for in a Secretary of Education.

I read this month's article in The Atlantic regarding the PISA results that echo the hysteria that Sec. Duncan and Co. are promoting. And it's all around the math scores.
"....... they looked specifically at the best and brightest in each place—the kids most likely to get good jobs in the future—using scores on standardized math tests as a proxy for educational achievement."

We have over 300 million people in this country; many of them will be Auto Mechanics (how many cars in the US?), Plumbers(how many offices, houses & apts. with running water in the US?), Electricians (same question as Plumbers) Hairdressers (how many people want to get their hair done?) dare I say Lawyers, Social Workers, Police people, Artists, Construction Workers........

The above professions do not need higher level math; more importantly, they represent jobs that are difficult to outsource, so they might become increasingly popular. They also make fairly decent incomes(except for Artists), and can usually manage some kind of work even in an economic downturn (except for Artists).

Maybe a better question to ask of ourselves is what do Americans do well? As pointed out in many articles, people from all over the world flock to our Universities; we make great ice cream (hundreds of flavors), we are leaders in the film industry, we still have outstanding medical centers.....?

The best part about the Atlantic magazine's article was the graphic chart using pencils to depict different countries' and US states math standing. Maybe an Artist could be thanked.

I did just fine in Math and took it up through Trigonometry. I just wasn't inclined towards an Accounting,Economics,Engineering,Medical, or Physics career.

Hello shallow reformers, test producers and
politicians who want to give us collective coronaries about our children over math......any common sense left?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 11, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

PLMichaels is on point. Our percentages for holding an undergraduate degree has hovered around 25% since WW II. What does that mean? It means around 75% do not need a college education for their living. But there are other points about this nonsense.

First, let's compare a medical graduate. After spending all those years in school, suddenly they give a test on medical law. What should we determine from the results of this test? Or let's train a plumber to plumb a house, then give them a test on framing the house.

Last, we need to determine what we want. Stop jerking kids around for the sake of some test and some government dollar trying to make a point. How do we want our children tested? What do we want them to learn?

By the way, before letting your Fruit of the Looms spoil, what is the manufacturing levels of those countries? How do we compare in living standards? Let's stop comparing the U.S. to the world. Let's start comparing the world to the U.S.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 11, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Newsweek put Michelle Rhee on their front cover. I have tried posting but it seems they have my account blocked. In fact, since they only have 1 comment posted - they may be blocking all posts.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 11, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

This point that 'charters don't outperform regular public schools' is misleading. When you average in the public schools in affluent neighborhoods with those from poor ones indeed charter schools appear not to perform that much better. Yet, for example, a charter school in South Los Angeles or SE DC far outperforms the local public schools from which they draw the same students, which is why parents in droves seek out those schools.
It frustrates me when parents make a choice based on their experience, yet some people all but accuse them of being 'duped' or ignorant of what's best for their own children.
I agree also with previous posters: we need more young people leaving high school with the appropriate math skills, not necessarily all ready for college calculus. As long as public schools take everyone you'll never get '100% Proficiency' in anything, much less math. Yet we must provide the students the content they need for what they desire to pursue. The person designing the braking system in your car is as important as the mechanic who fixes it, and both need to be prepared mathematically to do their jobs well.

Posted by: pdexiii | December 12, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse


I love the fact that you post so much good information from different authors.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 12, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Invalidating international test implications, educational statistics and rigid cognition measurement seems rampant in American Universities. To me this reflects directly on our own poor understanding of math (statistics) and science (psychology). Even if don't want to mirror China or the 30 other countries that outperformed us in Math and Reading Comprehension, the PISA measurement on resiliency is a strong indication that the DOE could humble itself and take a stronger look at how these countries are able to bring poor students up to par with their wealthier colleagues.

Posted by: MeasureThis | December 12, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

No MeasureThis. It's much better to click our heels and repeat there's no place like home. We would much prefer to think we have the answers that the other side is missing (not clear who the other side is since NCLB passed with 90% of Congress supporting it).
How about this?
1. U.S. does some things well. We try to educate all the students and ours is the most diverse population in the world.
2. What we don't do well is incorporate ideas from other places into a nationalized ed policy b/c we are still stuck in our fear of uniformity.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | December 12, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

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