About this time a year ago, Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, lamented the nation’s lackluster performance results in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. Every three years, PISA measures reading, math, and scientific literacy among 15-year-old students around the world. According to Duncan, PISA “is fast becoming the measuring rod by which countries track trends in national performance and assess college and career-readiness of students as they near the end of their compulsory education and prepare to participate in the global economy.”
Duncan eagerly awaited the results, but was sorely disappointed when they came in. It turns out that the U.S. is not among any of the top performing countries in any subject areas tested by PISA. U.S. students lag behind kids in Canada, Finland, South Korea, Estonia, Japan, Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, and other countries. In reading, a category where U.S. students performed their best, they are tied with Poland. The U.S. reading scores are closer to those of Latvia and Slovenia than neighboring Canada, where their students are better readers and more adept in math and science. That data is quite revealing: Students in the U.S. are less capable in accessing and retrieving data than those in some developing countries, and U.S. students struggle in interpreting and integrating information.
Some commentators immediately suggested that socio-economics pulled down the U.S. scores. In other words, poor kids from under-performing schools created an imbalance, which hurt the overall U.S. outcome. Some of this is racialized (i.e. pundits claim “poor black kids can’t read well and under-perform in math and science”). In part, that’s true, though clearly such generalities are over-inclusive and ignore what contributes to low student performance. Social promotion, including graduating students from high school without a 6th grade reading capacity, moving students along because they’re too old to be in elementary or middle school, high rates of mobility, and low verbal capacity upon entering first grade, are among the pitfalls and challenges in public education that undermine student success as well as the academic health of school districts. Typically there’s the debate as to who’s at fault—parents or teachers. Blame can be leveled at both groups, but let’s not overlook politicians who want to cut funding for education.
That said, pundits who blame poor, black public-school kids for these results miss the mark. Results from a different study conducted by an independent research firm debunk the notion that it’s the U.S. poor (alone) who drag down education. The 2009 Raytheon study sheds some insight on student behavior. For example, “seventy‐two percent of U.S. middle school students spend more than three hours each day outside of school in front of a TV, mobile phone or computer screen rather than doing homework or other academic‐related activities.” The study noted, “by contrast, just 10 percent of students spend the same amount of time on their homework each day, and 67 percent spend less than one hour on their math homework.”
Indeed, nearly 30 percent of the students surveyed could not name a career that requires math skills. This was not an inner-city survey. This is the state of “middle” America.
The US is in an academic crisis, but parents and their children don’t seem to know this. US students had more self-confidence in their knowledge and academic skills than nearly all other students in all the other countries included in the PISA study (about 64 nations and territories). The inflated notion of self is despite the fact that more U.S. students performed at a level “considered to be below the baseline level of reading proficiency needed to participate effectively and productively in life” than at the highest level. Urgent change is needed, but the problems will likely persist.
Indeed, what we witness in high-school performance now seeps into collegiate and graduate school aptitude and attitude. For example, universities seem as ill-equipped to address these issues as K-12 schools. Here, I’m not speaking of providing academic support centers. The students at the very bottom of the class likely realize their struggles with reading and math proficiency. It’s the middle group that poses the biggest challenge, particularly as they have been nurtured to believe that they are the best and the brightest.
This toxic mixture of overconfidence and under-performance has contributed to “limited learning” at college, according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. In their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the authors found that “in the first two years of school, 45 percent of college students had no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.”
On examination, it becomes clear that American students don’t buckle up when coming to college; instead, poor study habits follow—or perhaps worsen post-high school. In the Arum and Roksa study of more than 2,300 students, they found that U.S. students study about 12 hours per week, which is less than half of the hours college students devoted to studying in 1961. Graduate and professional schools are headed in the same direction, trading high academic standards and sometimes uncomfortable truths for appeasing students who pay high tuition.
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