Friday, July 4, 2008

My remarks on Ed Week Commentary on "Education Myths" by Iris Rotberg

These are my attempted remarks on an article "Myths That Continue to Confound Us" By Iris C. Rotberg , which appeared on Ed Week on line on June 9, 2008.

My overall assessment of this article is that it is attempting to play down the consistently poor scoring by our students in international tests, and pinning the blame on poverty. Nice try, but I was not swayed by the arguments given. Please read on.

First off, I want to mention some ground rules that I follow when I examine articles like this. I tend to overreact to anything that makes sweeping statements like "myth". It is usually an attempt by the author to summarily dismiss something, so that no further discussion is apparently warranted on that topic. I tend to go a little deeper, and more often than not, you find some hidden truths under the "myths". I also look at comments made by authors in areas that are apparently out of their comfort zones. Fortunately, this author has left most of those in the form of questions, with no answers given. Here are my comments, myth by myth, followed by my attempted answers to some of the questions.

1. Myth - "we can “fix” our schools without addressing the problems of poverty"

I believe this to be partially true. If nothing else changed in our system that delivers education to students, then the only variable that appears to help is resources from well off parents, trying to make up for the deficiencies in the system. What gets swept under the rug with this myth, in my opinion, is that if the system can change, then fixing the schools will take surprisingly little extra money. For example, what if a school district decided to cut their high school football programs to fund headstart? What if every high risk school switched to Saxon math from Everyday Math? What if the extra coaches and TOSAs were assigned to after school homework or help clubs so their parents can work a full day? What if the elementary teachers were allowed to specialize in math and reading? Apparently, all these solutions do not get brought up for discussion. Instead, the author seems to be asking the poor parents to get rich fast (which, as one can see, is a convenient "out of the system" problem that the system is not responsible for). A hard nosed taxpayer should demand that every solution be on the table. Having the discretion to be rich or poor in this economy is pretty much out of an average taxpayer's hands. But let me take a counterexample. The Dominican Republic is by many measures one of the poorest countries in the world. But they produce, per capita, the highest number of major league baseball players in the US. How did they achieve this without fixing the problem of poverty? That is a question that I would like to see answered.

2. Myth - "international test-score comparisons are valid measures of the quality of education"

I am baffled by this statement. At a minimum, the international test scores are the only thing we have to make a comparison. Why shoot the messenger? Again, I think it is symptomatic of a system that is self congratulatory on what it thinks is right, the results be damned. If, as most people in our education establishment would like to believe, we have the best education system in the world, should it matter who gets tested, or which socioeconomic group they come from?

3. Myth - " that international test-score comparisons are valid measures of a country’s ability to compete in the global economy. "

Now, here is something that is showing the author's naivete' on the subject. Quality of education, as measured by the test scores, is widely believed to be a NECESSARY condition, but not a SUFFICIENT condition to compete in the global economy. The two emerging economies, China and India, had excellent education systems for decades. They are only now starting to appear on the global radar. Why? Because it takes a free and competitive marketplace, and favorable conditions for risk taking (like intellectual property protection, bankruptcy protection, easy availability of venture capital etc.). Without these conditions, you would have what we used to call in India "rickshaw drivers who could recite Shakespeare". Well, guess what? Both China and India have gradually incorporated these favorable conditions in their economies over the last couple of decades. And because test scores tend to be some of the leading indicators of what is in store for an economy a few decades down the road, I think we have not even seen the full impact of what is in store for this country as a result of these changes.

The last part where the author starts asking questions - I pretty much agree with the questions. They are being asked by almost every person familiar with the issues. The questions are in quotes and italics, and my attempted answers below each question in normal font:

"I would like to pose a few questions, which I will leave to the reader to answer. Did the United States lose the leather, textile, and steel industries because of its ranking on test-score comparisons? Did General Motors lose sales to Toyota in the U.S. market because of American students’ math performance? And, at a more sophisticated level, are we losing out in high-tech innovation and information technology at Microsoft and Apple because the iPod is manufactured in China?
Even if some of our software and innovation come from other countries, is it because our education system has produced insufficient numbers of high-quality scientists, mathematicians, and engineers? Is there a shortage of U.S. scientists, as some firms have reported, or is there a shortage at the wages the firms would prefer to pay? Are companies outsourcing jobs to China and India because Americans are not qualified for them, or because the firms can pay much lower wages to workers in these countries? Did Italy outsource the production of designer shoes to China because there are no skilled craftsmen left in Italy?
Did the United States lose the leather, textile, and steel industries because of its ranking on test-score comparisons? "

The author has stated the questions in such a way that hey imply a cause-and-effect relationship between test scores and the continuing trend of de-industrialization of the US. Whereas if you look in my response to myth #3, it is likely to be only ONE of the causes. The typical US corporation makes decisions based on a lot of factors, the quality and productivity of labor being only one of them. Typically, however, the typical US public corporation tends to be swayed more by Wall Street than any other single entity. Since Wall Street does not have a very long horizon (typically less than a year) for its vision, the US firm tends to be short sighted as well. Bottom line decisions are made primarily to cut costs. Most of the de-industrialization was brought about due to cheaper labor outside the US. The fact that the labor was also of higher quality came as a bonus, historically speaking. The saving grace, we were told, was that we keep the high paying R&D jobs in this country, and export the low paying manufacturing jobs. But that implies we train enough PhDs in technical fields to keep those R&D jobs. But most technical PhDs are being granted to foreign nationals, who are forced to go back to their home countries due to visa restrictions. The US corporation follows the talent, so they are setting up R&D centers in places like Bangalore and Beijing. So, now, even the high paying R&D jobs are starting to be exported. R&D and the intellectual property it creates is the root of most if not all historic wealth in this country. The net effect is that the entire wealth creating machine is starting to be dismantled and moved off shore. I have no idea what will happen if you drain a country of the very fuel that got it this far.

"Is the underrepresentation of native-born U.S. students in some science, mathematics, and engineering Ph.D. programs the result of a failure of our education system, or of personal decisions made by students to select other fields—perhaps more-lucrative fields like investment banking, law, or business? "

I hope this is a rhetorical question. Because the answer is in the question itself. I do not know how to separate a person making a decision from the prior education he or she has had. If a person received inadequate preparation for scientific and technical fields from the school system, of course the decision will be made to go to the other fields. For example, if someone were told that Everyday Math/CMP/ IMP sequence prepares one to take calculus just as well as traditional math, Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, and the student believed the system, he or she would be very unlikely to succeed in a technical profession. So, in this case, did the student decide to choose something other than a technical field, or did the system leave the student with no other choice? This scenario has been played out over and over again in many states over the last two decades. This is just unethical, to say the least. Also, the sweeping conclusion on the alternative professions as "more lucrative" is uncalled for. It sounds like a preconceived notion by the author, and I do not believe them to be more lucrative. Investment banking is a notoriously fickle industry, which hires and fires at will. Business is inherently risky. As far as law goes, well, I saw a statistic that said we have 50 lawyers for every PhD scientist in the US. So, by not opting to go into technical fields, the students are putting their future careers at a greater risk, albeit the rewards are higher for a small percentage of the players. If we take this mentality to an extreme, we will be buying lottery tickets to finance our futures.

"Now to my question: Given the complexity of that global context, do you believe that our problems in economic competitiveness would be solved, or even alleviated, if U.S. students answered a few more questions correctly on international assessments?"

The answer from me is a definite yes, and more. I firmly believe in getting what I pay for. The US education spending per student comes within the top 10 nations in the world. So, I expect that the international ranking should be consistently in the top 10 as well. More than that, I would like to see the US appear in the top 5 "bang for the buck" category (which may be measured by something like = test score/$ spent per student). Currently, both these categories are dominated by countries like Singapore, Finland, and S. Korea. Test scores are a leading indicator of what is in store for the economy in a decade to two decades. So, we can still be comfortable today while our students do poorly in these tests. But by the time our students become part of the workforce, it would be too late. What is different this time compared to what the author cites from history? Every time we felt some competition in the past, be it from Japan, Korea, Germany, Russia etc., it was from economies and populations either equal to or smaller than ours. But the workforce in just two of the emerging economies, namely China and India, is roughly 8 times that of the US. To complicate matters, the world has suddenly gone flat, according to Thomas Friedman, due to a sudden explosion in global connectivity. In this flat world, the forces arrayed in competition with our graduates have no precedent in history, so historical comparisons have lost most of their relevance, in my mind. I think our graduates will have a much harder time making a living compared to the current workers, and the only way it can be changed is for them to strive to be the most competitive in the world in a wealth building field. I firmly believe that the education system should reform itself before it is found irrelevant by this global economy, and a large percentage of its products (future graduates) are relegated to the ranks of a permanent underclass, with little relevant knowledge, and few marketable skills.
More on the social ills in a future discourse.


kprugman said...

Iris Rotberg is a researcher for RAND Corporation and lately they've been criticized by reformers for not taking a strong enough stance in the charter movement (e.g. Philadelphia).

Part of the problem, you see, is what is wrong with questions like, Are you in favor of better schools for all children? or Are you favor of all teachers getting National Board Certified? Its difficult to say no to these sorts of ideas, because they all sound good at least on paper, but do they make sense is a more pertinent question. Were these ideas ever attempted before? More than likely yes and so there are good reasons those ideas were not adopted -

Merit pay is an excellent example.

What about lowering class sizes?

Sounds like a great idea, until you realize two things will have to happen - school districts will need more qualified teachers and more classrooms.

One result in California was more charter schools opened and non-certified teachers were hired, so predictably student achievement went down. Millions of dollars were lost due to mismanagement and Delaine Eastin was held responsible, although not accountable.

The reform movement is monkeying with things it doesn't understand well enough to attempt on a state-level.

The cost of failure is catastrophic and I think that has surely happenned in Oregon and Washington where we are witnessing some of the largest dropout rates in both urban (50%) and rural areas (25%), something that has never happened before in our history. Canadian dropout rates are higher than in Europe, but still well below 10% and the dropout rate is higher in rural areas, not urban areas.

Rotberg is a moderate in the reform movement, not a liberal, so you can just imagine how backward these people are.

kprugman said...

Merlino headed the math reform initiative in Philadelphia (got practically thrown out of the neighborhood by angry teachers); returned with a new LSC grant (had no impact on test scores and teachers fled into the suburbs); and returned yet a third time with a bigger grant, his claim being that he needed to implement change at a state level, so teachers would have no where to hide. He helped create the small army of coaches to police the teachers. Its no wonder they're district is a shamble. Most of those coaches are all gone now and the district is left to pick up the pieces. What a fright! And no one is held responsible. Thank you NSF...