Nobody (in the United States) likes the results of the PISA tests (the Program for International Student Assessment). As Motoko Rich wrote in The New York Times, 15-year-olds in the United States scored in the middle of the developed world in reading and science, while lagging in math, setting off “a familiar round” of hand-wringing (in the United States), blaming (ditto) and credit-taking (that would be in other, more successful countries, like South Korea, Japan and Singapore).

But what’s easy to miss amid said hand-wringing is that there’s a reason our educational system is significantly different from that found in higher-scoring nations: To some extent, we like it that way. We do not, as a country, want to track our students onto different educational paths at a relatively early age, as they do in Singapore, Switzerland and the Netherlands (with some degree of flexibility).

We don’t want them sleeping just three hours a night in a quest for a slot in one of three universities that is so desperate that South Korea has a team of government employees dedicated to enforcing a 10 p.m. curfew on its late-night tutoring establishments.

The single-minded pursuit of test scores that concerns Shanghai’s government would never fly among parents who share articles like Teach Kids to Daydream and My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me.

There’s more to what creates better PISA results in places like South Korea, Shanghai, Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Finland than can be seen by looking at their schools, and much of the culture that creates those successes doesn’t translate here. The Northern European approach to income inequality, which allows its students to appear at school on a more equal footing, threatens the bootstrap identity of a nation with a Pa Ingalls notion of independence. Exalting the extremes of education in the manner of the stereotypical Asian tiger clashes with the high value we place on success in arenas like football and entertainment.

Those aren’t necessarily national values we want to enshrine (particularly the one that leaves teachers coping with children who come to school hungry after a night in a homeless shelter). They are part of who we are, and unless we plan to move to testing only children from Massachusetts (a la China, which submits results only from Shanghai and Hong Kong), they are factors we have to consider in looking outside the United States to import educational strategies that might rely on cultural factors to succeed.

Collectively, we want our nation’s students to be more successful – but we want them to be successful on our terms. It’s an attitude perfectly captured by an opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune from R. Dennis Hansen about his brother, the Nobel Prize winner Lars Peter Hansen:

“There are two important lessons to learn from Lars’ life experience.

“One, you don’t have to go to a tony private school, like Mitt Romney’s Cranbrook, to get a good education. In fact, Romney’s insular education may have been a significant factor in his recent political defeat. Public schools are important, and they need to be supported both politically and financially.

“Additionally, you don’t need to attend an Ivy League university to be a success. Lars excelled at USU and Minnesota. He received an excellent education at both, and one might argue that going to a state-supported university keeps students better grounded to life’s realities. Utah’s state-supported universities are a treasure and we also need to support them.

“Two, the American system of education, which doesn’t pigeon-hole students at an early age, has many benefits. For example, it allows individuals to grow at many junctures during their lives.

“While in high school, Lars occasionally received comments on his report cards like ‘lacks respect for authority’ and was told by his high school guidance counselor that he would probably be just a mediocre college student. Luckily, the American system of education allows individual development to take off at any time during one’s life. In Lars’ case, it was after high school at USU. But for many Americans, it is much later than that.”

Take that, South Korea (and, while we’re at it, Ivy League).

As a country, we’re torn. We want to seek out innovations that might raise test scores, and better yet, improve the prospects and lives of students who can’t seem to break a cycle of poverty. We also want to keep whatever it is that allowed Lars Peter Hansen to develop at his own pace, rather than be tracked out by dubious teachers or felled by an unwillingness to bend to authority at a young age.

That makes it difficult to learn much from PISA comparisons, other than that in our quest to hang onto the baby, we clearly haven’t managed to dump the bathwater down the drain.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

[email protected]

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