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GRAVES: Same dog, new boot

Joe Graves, Mitchell Schools Superintendent  Given that I am as susceptible as the next fellow to the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” phenomenon, I sometimes look with envy at those in the private sector. Don’t get me wrong; I love my job and I know there are all sorts of pluses to working in the public sector, but I also know that countervailing advantages exist in the private. Interestingly, many of what are perceived as advantages and as disadvantages can also be viewed with almost equal facility as just the opposite.

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Take the profit motive. In the private sector, if you don’t make a profit, you won’t be around for long. Then again, if you do very well and profits roll in like pheasant hunters in October, you will typically share in the resulting largesse. In the public sector, though we don’t often act like it, we are much more protected from the vicissitudes of the marketplace. Our revenues roll in and we exist in a relatively noncompetitive environment (though that has changed significantly in the last couple of decades). Then again, no matter how well we do in terms of the production of student achievement or even the increase of enrollment, there is no or at least very little profit-sharing or earning shares of company stock. The floor is secure but the ceiling is limiting.

A similar phenomenon exists between private and public in terms of how each is “evaluated.” While not the only indicator of success, a private company is largely deemed successful or not based upon earnings/profits. Public schools on the other hand, because they are not so susceptible to market forces, are judged on any myriad of things. In fact, public schools are something of a Rorschach test. What you see as the point of a school may say more about you than it does about education. Regardless, this lack of a single focus can be seen as good or bad. Certainly you don’t want the person educating your child to view them as nothing more than an economic opportunity and so the “freedom” from the profit motive may help build education as an ennobling profession. But the lack of a single focus leaves educators susceptible to the problem of the moving target or no target or so many targets that being “successful” can become an impossible dream. Educators sometimes feel like victims of their critics because those selfappointed critics can come from every imaginable angle.

One such angle, released last week, comes in the form of the international rankings of student achievement, as determined by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The media reports on those results reached consensus on three trends:

• American students are being outhustled by their international counterparts who are doing better on the tests than in the past.

• Student achievement on the PISA is stagnant.

• As a result of the combination, the standing of American students falls further and further back, from 25th to 31st (out of 65 countries) in math, 20th to 24th in science, and 11th to 21st in reading.

While a number of American educators pooh-pooh international comparisons, I don’t. They are perhaps as important as any comparisons we make because Friedman is right, the world really is flat and it’s getting flatter every day. The children we are educating today will find that while they are still competing with their peers in South Dakota and the nation at large, they must also increasingly compete with their peers in every “connected” nation in the world and since that includes China and India, we are looking at one deep employee pool. The fact that federal Secretary of Education Duncan — a man who could be said, after five years at the helm, to share in the blame for such — joins instantly in the lament over these results only adds to their importance.

Still, there are those who suggest this news is either not bad or not as bad as it might seem at first glance. First, there is the issue of student representation. It is argued by many educational leaders that because of national differences — a non-representative group taking the test in, say, China or a school system that divides students into different tracks and then tests only the university track students on the PISA (giving it a definite “lean”) as in Europe, or due to America’s almost unique tendency to educate a constantly new wave of non-native-speaking immigrants, or even countries which just cheat by providing only their best students for testing for PR purposes — the results are not valid, that they don’t really offer an apples to apples comparison.

Second, other contrarians argue that the test itself is based upon a type of education — what we might call “back to the basics” or Essentialism — that produces exactly the kind of workers you don’t want in the modern economy. These are students who know how to read well and how to calculate well but who don’t know how to decide what should be read or what formula to use in a calculation. In other words, the countries which do extremely well on the test are producing employees for a mid-20th century economy but who will be faced with a 21st century economic reality. Or, as the South Dakota Schools of Mines and Technology cheering section used to chant toward the opposing crowd beating its brains in on the field or court, “It’s all right, it’s OK, you’ll all work for us someday!” Do I believe the test is so misguided that its results actually mean the opposite of what we are interpreting them to mean? No, frankly I don’t, but I can’t discount them completely. Those who make this argument are astute, well-spoken and sincere. They may even be right.

Finally, it remains true that the PISA international comparison is one of a bazillion comparisons and angles against which American schools are judged. On some other comparisons — rising graduation rates, narrowing discrepancies between student ethnic groups, growing literacy and numeracy rates in a number of states, the integration of new immigrant groups into the culture — American schools are doing better. So just what is the target? Until we as a society can agree on just what the standard is, it may be counterproductive to keep kicking the same old dog with a different boot each day. It’s not fair and it’s discouraging for those genuinely trying to get the dog moving.