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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 01/24/2011

Test scores and economic competitiveness

By Valerie Strauss

It has become a common refrain among politicians and school reformers that the performance of American students on international tests is a reflection of the country's ability to compete economically. Here's a different view, written by William J. Mathis of Goshen, Vermont. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

By William J. Mathis
What does international economic competitiveness have to do with kids’ test scores?

Not much.

If we look at it from a jobs perspective, 70 percent of United States jobs require only on-the-job training, 10 percent require technical training, and 20 percent require a college education.

Although the Obama administration claims that the jobs of the future will require much higher and universal skills, the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution says that the country's job structure profile will remain about the same. The proportion of middle skill jobs (plumbers, electricians, health care, police officers, etc.) is not expected to decline.

In stark contrast to the school reform rhetoric, the dramatic job slowdown will be in the more highly skilled jobs.

The cry reaches fullest volume when talking about science, math and technology training. This is where we are supposedly behind the “economically competitive” needs for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, only one-twentieth of United States jobs require science and math backgrounds. For these positions, there are three times as many qualified applicants as there are available positions. Far from any shortage, the United States produces 25% of the world’s most talented youth.

The problem is not the failure to “supply” a sufficient number of qualified applicants; it is with the failure of the “demand” side of the equation to supply enough high tech jobs. Underemployment or unemployment among the college educated afflicts 13% of people with bachelor’s degree people and 9% of those with post-graduate training.

Paradoxically, the universal ascent of technology requires less proficiency – not more -- for most jobs. For example, flashing items under a scanner requires less skill than hand- keying in prices. Despite the economic downturn, if the objective is to be internationally competitive in science, math and technology, then the private sector has to invest in these types of jobs. The numbers demonstrate they have not.

Contrary to the simplicity of the sound bite, the drivers of national economic competitiveness show a much more complex and nuanced connection with education. The United States fell from its usual first place in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) competitiveness index to fourth in the latest ratings (China is 27th). The reason for this fall was not education. Rather, it was macro-economic instability.

The nation’s economic swoon has a whole lot more to do with sub-prime mortgages, exporting manufacturing jobs to low wage countries, debt, and the cost of two wars than it does with increasing our over-supply of highly trained, under-employed high tech people.

Having sound institutions, well-maintained infrastructure, market efficiency and business efficiency are among the more direct and influential factors in global competitiveness. In the WEF’s “Twelve Pillars of Competitiveness,” only two relate to education (health and primary education; higher education and training).

The Forum warns against cutting expenditures in basic education -- which, despite temporary federal bail-outs, is exactly what the states are doing. For higher education, where the United States has traditionally shined, the Forum speaks of teaching “adaptability.” However, adaptability is not a trait often associated with the ever-increasing push for high stakes standardized testing.

Furthermore, predicting, standardizing, teaching and testing the hard skills that will be essential in the work force 20 years from now require a level of economic divination that is more prophecy than rational policy-making. Our best knowledge is that soft skills such as versatility, adaptability, using evaluative information, and encouraging a wide range of talents are far more important to national, economic and personal development than the mastery of certain cognate.

To be sure, many proponents for the new standardized tests claim they test higher-level skills. Such claims have been common in the past. The record, however, doesn’t support the claim.

High stakes standardized tests narrow and dumb the curriculum. Social studies, science, art and music instruction have been reduced by a third in some states. If it is testable in a standardized way, it is unlikely to measure the knowledge, flexibility and creativity needed for a new and uncertain age.

Finally, if international test scores are your measure of interest, as the recent report on PISA points out, high scoring nations and school systems are characterized by equal opportunities for all children. [In the latest PISA results, American students overall earned generally average scores in reading, science and math, though scores in high-income areas had top scores.]

Unfortunately, the United States has become the most inequitable of the developed nations -- a very dubious number one ranking. The simple arithmetic shows that we will remain low-scorers as long as we perpetuate huge economic disparities and inequalities in the quality of schooling we provide. Number one ranked Finland has 3% poverty while the United States has over 25% poverty.

It is the scores of our most needy children that pull our national average down. One of the reasons that other nations are catching up and surpassing us is because they are building their middle class while the United States is pursuing policies that destroy theirs.

The highest scoring international states have high resiliency scores, which is based on the link between socioeconomic levels and test scores. That is, do children boot-strap their way up through education? The United States has among the worst resiliency rates.

Thus, education as the road to the American dream is becoming more of a dead-end. Further, when families and students fall into poverty in the United States, they tend to stay there far more than they do in other countries.

Yet as a matter of policy, the reforms promoted by both Republican and Democratic politicians explicitly or implicitly claim that the achievement gap (and thus equality) can be closed by dint of privatization, more efficient pedagogy and market based reforms. The research to date shows that even under the best of circumstances, such reforms simply do not have that much educational or social power.

So what does international competitiveness have to do with kids’ test scores? Not much.

But if we obsess on test score ratings and test based accountability systems as our key to
international competitiveness, we will not only fail to be economically competitive, we will fail in the plain measures of equality, decency and fairness that are essential for a democracy and a civilized society.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 24, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  international competitiveness, international test scores, pisa scores, test scores, u.s. economy  
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Comments

I never completely understood the correlation of a degree with improved economics. A degree could provide the knowledge necessary for work, but having 25 applicants for the job means 24 are still unemployed. Yes, as some would gripe "they can find work." Yet would that be compensation for their years in school? Would they ever be able to compete for another in their profession? Maybe not if they continue to stay out of the professional workforce.

If we all had PhDs, someone would still be needed to paint houses, stock shelves, and change oil in the car.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 24, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

He (President Obama) lectured teachers, students and parents on the need to "step up their games" if the United States wants to compete with India and China in the global economy.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/04/AR2009110403864.html
..............................
Great for politicians to have teachers, parents, and children as the fall guys for our economic problems.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 24, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Increasing poverty coupled with the erosion of middle class is at the root of public school education issues in America. The very few children from impoverished backgrounds who make it in America are held up as shining examples of American ingenuity.. the "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" myth. No you cannot! If you are too poor to afford decent housing and your child is exposed to lead or asthma producing allergens and does not get proper medical attention his/her academics will suffer. If a parent has to work three jobs to barely earn a living wage (instead of an average 9-5 job), the parent cannot spend quality time with his/her child. If a parent is a refugee whose own education was interrupted by war, he/she has difficulty helping his/her own child let alone accessing "the system" that will help his/her child get into a good school etc... National policy is helping the rich to get richer, while the middle class are now spending most of their salaries on necessities and the poor remain poor. I particularly liked Mathis' comment:
"It is the scores of our most needy children that pull our national average down. One of the reasons that other nations are catching up and surpassing us is because they are building their middle class while the United States is pursuing policies that destroy theirs".

So do politicians still want to argue that by taxing businesses, we will pull our economy down? In the future, there will be no middle class to support business in America. There needs to be a fundamental shift in policy geared toward lowering poverty and increasing the middle class. If this occurs, the USA should see a change in educational performance of its nation's children (let's face it.. the performance we are addressing is those children who are economically disadvantaged. Stop scape-goating public school teachers who have no control over the root cause of hindered learning in the classroom - poverty! And yes, there are some home lives that are parentally inexcusable. But, many impoverished parents do the best that they can under horrific circumstances due to poverty. Let economically comfortable parents walk in the shoes of the severely economically disadvantaged to see poverty's most detrimental effects. It is much too easy for someone like Michelle Rhee or Bill Gates to say, "get rid of all the bad teachers" and students will do better.

Posted by: teachermd | January 24, 2011 1:43 PM | Report abuse

from teachermd:

"...In the future, there will be no middle class to support business in America. There needs to be a fundamental shift in policy geared toward lowering poverty and increasing the middle class...."
__________

Anyone who has visited countries in the '3rd world' - Latin America, Aisia, etc. will attest to the issues of a very small middle class, huge lower/impoverished classes and a powerful upper class that
1) controls just about everything
2) sends their children only to private
schools and
3) often run very minimalist public
schools

Given the above, it is my belief that we are emulating and fast developing a 3rd world nation society.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 24, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

"it is testable in a standardized way, it is unlikely to measure the knowledge, flexibility and creativity needed for a new and uncertain age."

A completely vacuous statement. That's like saying that if blood pressure is measured in a standardized way then no future knowledge regarding the patient can ever be obtained.


"For these positions, there are three times as many qualified applicants as there are available positions. Far from any shortage,"

That's due to the outsourcing craze of the last decade. It seems to escape the author's notice that people like Bill Gates use the mediocre AVERAGE performance of American students to justify closing American high tech shops and re-opening them in cheaper locales. If I was a conspiracy nut I'd suspect that the author is a shill for MBAs looking for justification to open up divisions in India and China.

"private sector has to invest in these types of jobs. The numbers demonstrate they"

See above.

"Our best knowledge is that soft skills such as versatility, adaptability,"

These "skills" have been present in the human race for at least 50,000 years. By this line of reasoning we should give up education and literacy entirely, and return to hunting and gathering.

In case you haven't noticed, we owe China lots and lots of money. How are we to pay for this if we don't produce EXPORTABLE goods? How do we produce goods that are exportable if we aren't COMPETITIVE?

Posted by: physicsteacher | January 24, 2011 6:10 PM | Report abuse

to PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large: Good analogy albeit scary! I just keep asking myself how "checks and balances" can be restored in this nation. This nation is systematically being taken control of by the agendas of mega-millionaires who seem to love power (for the sheer thrill and profit of it). We have certainly seen the ways of these mega-millionaires in several industries... mortgages, banking, credit, retirement funds and now ... public education. We know the end results and they are not pretty. All this emphasis on students as "human capital" is deeply disturbing. We should be emphasizing education as a means of providing joyful life-long curiosity as this (in the end) enables an individual to contribute to society-at-large. I highly doubt that cookie cutter standardized test scores and cookie cutter curriculum will lead to the innovation needed for a thriving nation.

Posted by: teachermd | January 24, 2011 6:21 PM | Report abuse

"This nation is systematically being taken control of by the agendas of mega-millionaires who seem to love power (for the sheer thrill and profit of it)."

Of course. But who's giving them the ammunition to use in the court of public opinion? Most the tripe that Valerie posts. Many teachers, and 100% of education schools.

Schools were going downhill when Bill Gates still had acne and long before he focused his sights on education.

Explain to me why kids COMING INTO MY CLASS -- I'm talking here about 10th through 12th grade don't know which side of the ruler is the centimeter side. This in spite of years of "creatively" inventing hypotheses and "designing" experiments. How does one "design" scientific experiments that don't involve measurement?

The problem with education is the EDUCATION SCHOOLS AND THE TRASH THEY PREACH. From the all-creativity-no-knowledge projects, to portfolios for all subjects, to calculators and other "technology" all the time, to the foolishness of social promotion. THESE are the reasons that we always look bad in international comparisons. Teachers would be wise to start repudiating the ideas with which they were indoctrinated instead of blaming everything on testing. Joe Q Public out there doesn't believe you because he himself sees some kid unable to make change at the supermarket and he doesn't need Bill Gates to tell him there's something wrong.

The author here was supposedly a superintendant. As such he either enforced the dumb ideas dreamt up in ed schools or he witnessed the results firsthand. YET, NEVER does he look at his own profession for culpability.

If teachers keep defending themselves the way they do in this forum they will experience the very thing they fear most.

"I highly doubt that cookie cutter standardized test scores and cookie cutter curriculum will lead to the innovation needed for a thriving nation."

The same tripe, over and over. It's been shown that "creativity" requires knowledge. Non-standardized knowledge isn't. It's just opinion. Do you really think that a biochemist can be "innovative" without a tremendous amount of very STANDARDIZED knowlege? Or an engineer? Or a medical researcher? Or a historian? Or an archeologist?

Innovation isn't limited to people creating fun new prom dresses or making up advertising slogans, as many teachers seem to think.

Posted by: physicsteacher | January 24, 2011 7:02 PM | Report abuse

The biggest threat to American preeminence in the 21st century draws its power from the past. Continued societal inequities and stagnant poverty rates are our Achilles' heel and will remain so until we reexamine tax, housing, and economic policies which perpetuate and punish the lower class.

Barriers erected long ago to sustain racial and class divides must be acknowledged and then dismantled if our national ambitions are to be met. How ironic that it is the poor who hold so much of our future prosperity in their hands.

Today, vaunted reformers claim to have discovered the remedy for all our woes. Through privatized charter schools, impotent teacher unions, rigid standardized testing, and an assembly line of interchangeable new teachers, America can lift its poor without examining any of its other policies and privileges.

It is an intoxicating premise which will no doubt make its appearance in yet another State of the Union address. The lifting of the children of the poor without addressing the causes and ramifications of the persistent poverty afflicting their parents (and the self-perpetuating behaviors on everyone's part, including the poor) is a quick fix no adept politician could possibly ignore.

Already, billionaire philanthropists eagerly embrace this "bloodless revolution." We will have the "Great Society" without all the mess.

For more on my experiences teaching in light (or in spite) of all this, please visit my blog at teachermandc.com.

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 24, 2011 11:31 PM | Report abuse

"To be sure, many proponents for the new standardized tests claim they test higher-level skills. Such claims have been common in the past. The record, however, doesn’t support the claim."

In Illinois, standardized tests do not test higher-level skills.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 26, 2011 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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