Saturday, April 12, 2008

The American Educational System

Absinthe has a disturbing look at the illiteracy rates of American eighth graders and drop out rates in American schools. You may have to scroll down to see the articles.

Always interested in the pathetic state of our educational system, I took a look at the 2006 OECD Program for International Student Assessment, which focused on science, to see where we stood. I'd recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some statistics and exerpts you may find disturbing.

Overall, the U.S. ranked 29th and fell significantly below the OECD average. In the U.S., 24.4% of 8th graders fall below level 2, the minimum scientific competency needed "to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology."

Students’ socio-economic differences accounted for a significant part of between-school differences in some countries. This factor contributed most to between-school performance variation in the United States, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Slovak Republic, Germany, Greece and New Zealand, and the partner countries Bulgaria, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

NOTE: Some countries. Not all. If something inherent in socioeconomic status determined educational outcome, we'd expect more countries to show significant differences universally.

Less than 10% of the variation in student performance was explained by student background in five of the seven countries with the highest mean science scores of above 530 points (Finland, Canada and Japan, and the partner countries/economies Hong Kong-
China and Estonia).

NOTE: So, if the school system is better, the socioeconomic differences shrink to near insignificance.

In countries with relatively strong and steep socio-economic gradients, socio-economically targeted policies are likely to achieve most.
– In Hungary, France, Belgium, the Slovak Republic, Germany, the United States and New Zealand, and the partner country Bulgaria, the gradient is both steeper and stronger than average for OECD countries (Table 4.4a).

What do we do?

Countries where a high level of variation is accounted for by between-school socioeconomic factors particularly need to consider whether socioeconomic segregation by school is harming equity and/or overall performance (Table 4.4b).

Students of low economic status are all too often placed in schools with high concentrations of poor students, inadequate facilities and supplies, high percentages of underqualified teachers, and high student-to-teacher ratios. Students of low economic status placed in schools where the socioeconomic status of students is mixed do better.

I spoke at a school in New Orleans once where ALL of the students were disadvantaged African-American students. There weren't enough textbooks for the students despite a recent textbook purchase, so they weren't allowed to take books home. Promised educational materials (from which teachers were supposed to develop lesson plans) arrived months after the start of the school year. Some windows were boarded up. There was no toilet paper in many bathrooms. Parts of the classroom were literally falling apart. It was deplorable.

The worst part? A woman I knew who taught at the school and had been declared (by the school system) a "highly qualified" math teacher brought me a copy of a standardized prep test where one question supposedly had no right answer. She told me that four math teachers had pored over the test and been unable to find one in the options offered. The problem: -5 squared. (Anyone know how to do superscript in blogger?) The first possible answer: A. -25. The correct answer: -25. This "highly qualified" eighth grade math teacher and her coworkers didn't know the difference between -5 squared and (-5) squared. I had to pull the math textbook to prove to her that -25 was the right answer. Highly qualified indeed.

What about gender?

Of the attitudes measured in PISA, the largest gender difference was observed in students’ self-concept regarding science. In 22 out of the 30 OECD countries in the survey, males thought significantly more highly of their own science abilities than did females (Table 3.21).


Males and females showed no difference in average science performance in the majority of countries, including 22 of the 30 OECD countries (Table 2.1c).

And we wonder why there are so many people completely ignorant of or in denial about the validity of evolution, modern medicine (as compared to homeopathy, chiropratics, crystals and the like), human involvement in climate change, the biological insignificance of race, the biological significance of sexual orienation, the realities of class, and the extraordinarily limited effect that innate gender differences may play in achievement.


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