Enough with the education olympics

Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for All, suggests in the Wall Street Journal that we call off the education arms race.

I agree. She’s referring to viewing education system effectiveness, as measured by standardized test scores across countries as a competition.

We should be happy that other countries are doing so well. Isn’t that good for us to live in a more educated world? Perhaps we might even be able to learn something from them, if we care to.

Or maybe we’ll just discover that they’re really good test takers.

The Wall Street Journal also offers this piece today about the education arms race, which says:

Since 1998, the Program for International Student Assessment, or Pisa, has ranked 15-year-old kids around the world on common reading, math and science tests. The U.S. brings up the middle—again—among 65 education systems that make up fourth-fifths of the global economy.

I have a few other thoughts to consider.

How well do PISA scores on reading, math and science correlate with prosperity now and in the future? Perhaps there’s a threshold that is good enough and, for whatever reason, the other countries are, to their own detriment, are far surpassing that.

For years I’ve heard that U.S. doesn’t have government health care and it results in sub par medical care performance vs. countries that do.

We do have government education, yet that still seems to result in sub par performance. So, maybe whether the government provides something isn’t the key to success. Maybe there are other factors.

Though, I must say that I do see as one bad outcome of our education system our inability to be able to put such results in proper perspective.


9 thoughts on “Enough with the education olympics

  1. “Or maybe we’ll just discover that they’re really good test takers.”

    Which means if adult life is full of standardized tests, they’ll do very well, right? 🙂

    “How well to PISA scores on reading, math and science correlate with prosperity now and in the future? Perhaps there’s a threshold that is good enough and, for whatever reason, the other countries are, to their own detriment, far surpassing that.”

    I couldn’t find anything on PISA tests, but there was a pretty cool link about GDP and secondary education rates here:


    If only correlation was causation.

    • Correct…correlation isn’t necessarily causation, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine which is the cause and which is the signal.

      For example, it may be that wealthier countries can afford secondary education in terms of the costs of providing it and the opportunity cost of the lost productivity of teenagers who are sitting in classrooms and going to soccer practice, rather than tending to the crops and livestock or family stall at the market.

      In the real world, it’s probably a little bit of a circular reference. Some secondary education helps prosperity and prosperity makes it possible.

    • And “Which means if adult life is full of standardized tests, they’ll do very well, right?” is an excellent way to put it.

  2. I seem to recall the words of my old economics professor in reference to the conditions for someone to actually do something – he must be both WILLING and ABLE. In the context of education and prosperity, I think that needs to be kept in mind.

    You brought up a point that could lead one to believe that you feel there is a strong correlation (and perhaps a causation) between education (or test results) and prosperity.

    In a previous thread, we touched upon the idea that the key determinants of success (which we measure by an individual’s prosperity) and I noted that there is good evidence that these are determination, perseverance, self-discipline, delayed gratification, etc. (As an aside, this is a good argument for having kids engage in difficult sports where they must individually learn to deal with hardship and failure, e.g. CrossFit, gymnastics, wrestling, etc.). This develops the WILLING part of the equation. People will always face hardships, disappointments and failures. The willingness to get back up and continue is necessary if one is to actually utilize his abilities or talents.

    Education is the ABLE part of the equation. Education is anything that changes ones behavior. That is, anything that results in one doing something differently than he did it before. Simply put, education or training changes our ability to do something whether that is performing mathematical calculations, solving physics problems, penning novels, playing the piano or doing push-ups. If one develops the ability to do something, but lacks the willingness to try again when he fails, he is unlikely to progress (either by luck or pluck) in his life and achieve his full potential or maximum prosperity.

    As far as international testing or any comparative testing:

    1. As Wally notes (intentionally or not), adult life is full of tests. Doing well on a test depends both on one’s mastery of the subject and one’s test taking ability. Like it or not, the latter improves with practice.

    2. It seems too convenient for Ms. Kopp, who’s effectiveness (and likely her salary and donations/grants) is measured in part by how well US kids perform on tests versus international kids, to want us to eliminate test results that indicate her organization’s ineffectiveness. I’m afraid that “just trust us, we’re educators and we know what’s best for your kids – just send us more money” doesn’t cut it. Competition is good. It helps ensure that Jones is doing his best to provide a better product than Smith. But for competition to work, we must be able to “keep score”, to evaluate Smith versus Jones. Testing serves this purpose – WHEN WE RECOGNIZE THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE TESTS.

    3. I would be much more reassured in abolishing such tests if control of education was truly at the local (county) level rater than at the federal level. The federal government and the national teacher’s unions don’t have as their primary goal ensuring that my kids get the education that gives them the “ABLE” to compete with others on a national and international level. Local leaders do – or at least they are more directly answerable to me and other parents who send our kids to our local schools. Also note that the feds don’t even have the incentive (via pressure from constituent voters) to provide an education that makes all of our nation’s kids competitive. At the national level, politicians are responsive to large groups, not individuals, and there are not large groups arguing for better education (more money for schools is NOT better education, it’s simply more money for teachers and teacher’s unions). This is similar to the reason that we have high tariffs on sugar – millions of individuals paying a few dollars more for sugar don’t protest about sugar tariffs, but a few large companies who make billions because of the tariffs make sure their voice is heard in DC.

    PS – At least in the US, prosperity has made higher teacher and educational administrator salaries possible, but it’s difficult to show that it has made education (meaning real learning versus mere attendance at a school) a reality – a “possibility” maybe, but not a reality.

    • Hi MIke — I must’ve missed the mark on communicating clearly on this one. I really don’t buy that good performance on standardized test scores causes prosperity.

      Mine and Wally’s point was that if you are trained to take standardized tests, you will be good at those, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’ll translate, even to the harder tests of life as an adult.

      I think your sports tests are better for those.

      Ms. Kopp’s Teach for All works around the world. She also heads up Teach for America, which does focus in America. But, it seems her incentives aren’t necessarily to just get rid of a performance measure for her organization.

      I believe her point is — and I agree — that international standardized test score comparisons are meaningless.

      • I took Wally’s comment about tests in adulthood to refer to whether or not adults take tests (or are tested). I propose that even if adults aren’t given “standardized” tests or even recognizable tests per se, adults are tested and graded virtually every day. This may be as simple as you boss noticing whether you wear sandals versus lace ups to work – things that don’t necessarily correlate with how well you can perform your job task (similar to “do standardized test scores predict performance?). There are things that we get rated on that have very little to do with our actual task performance even though they may have a great deal to do with how our evaluators perceive us. Mastering these “task unrelated” things is analogous to test taking ability. It is a separate, but important skill.

        In the world of private business, bosses and managers learn how to rate or grade subordinates such that their evaluations correspond with or predict performance. Businesses that fail to do this as effectively as their competition fail to prosper and grow. I have much more confidence in their “tests” than in the tests devised by big government which is more concerned with making the voters believe they are getting a good product than with the actual delivery of a good product. I maintain that evaluations created at a local level are much better as the consequences are more direct.

        My understanding is that many of the big standardized tests have been “infiltrated” by government and politics and that there have been some truly private companies that are developing independent tests that (hopefully) better predict advanced academic or job performance. I don’t have a problem if Ms. Kopp wishes to avoid o ignore tests that are not valid in terms of the answers they purport to provide, but I do have a problem if she simply wishes to avoid evaluation of results. I particularly object when she receives federal taxpayer dollars. If she were to receive ONLY private dollars, e.g. tuition directly from students and their families, I think this market mechanism would serve as an evaluation of her results. My ideal would be to privatize our schools or at least make all control at the local county/city level and eliminate any and all federal involvement with education.

        In terms of test results, my understanding (Michelle Rhee) is that our (the US) drop in international rankings is primarily due to improving scores by other nations rather than a big drop in our scores. I have two issues with this: First, we continue to spend more and more money for “results” (test scores or actual job performance) that are, at best, stagnant. Second – and this speaks to the issue of actual job or college performance versus just test scores – I think the actual job performance of our graduates as well as the preparation for college level courses has declined over the last 50 years. When I entered college, the intro level math course was calculus. Today, I see college freshman taking pre-algebra. Having been a business owner – and looking back to my high school days when I worked a variety of jobs – most high school and college graduates lack even a basic knowledge of history or how our government is supposed to work, cannot format a letter or address an envelope, cannot perform simple math tasks in their head (what is 10% of 120? if the cost of my happy meal is $4.77 and I give you a $5 bill and 2 pennies, what’s my change? the answer to the latter is typically “dude, you gave me too much money”), don’t know the difference between “to” “too” and “two” – let’s not even mention “lie” and “lay”.

  3. Hi Seth

    I re-read Wendy Kopp’s WSJ editorial today.

    I’m really puzzled regarding what her stance is on standardized testing. I don’t believe she actually says that the tests lack validity or that she opposed them. What she does seem to oppose however is comparing our test scores to those of other countries as she implies this implied competition necessarily means that the involved countries are then engaged in a zero-sum game whereby gains by China imply losses for the US and cooperation is discouraged. She neither makes a strong theoretical case for, nor does she prove, her point.

    To take Ms. Kopp’s argument a step further, why not stop comparing test results between the various states….between various schools in a state, county, etc… Doesn’t this (as Ms. Kopp states) discourage cooperation and the advancement of teaching methods? Let’s go a step further and stop comparing the test results at Yourtown High School between Mrs. Smith’s Algebra I class and Mrs. Jones’ Algebra I class as comparing results will prevent Jones and Smith from cooperating. Heck, let’s cut out the tests altogether as the tests must prevent the kids from cooperating and helping each other to succeed.

    That’s the logic of Ms. Kopp’s argument. But it’s empirically false. When I was in high school, college and medical school – and these were all very competitive schools with very competitive students whose advancement and choice of subsequent positions depended on rank versus the other students – cooperation was the norm, not the exception. Study sessions, sharing notes, strong students helping weaker students, etc. were all typical. Sure, we all wanted to de better on the test, but we cooperated when it came to the learning part.

    In fact, Ms. Kopp argues FOR comparative testing when it comes to Common Core which she endorses. Why is comparative testing good (in terms of cooperation, etc.) when its part of Common Core – Ms. Kopp says she wants to know how her kids are doing in comparison to other kids across the nation – but bad when comparing our results to other nations?

  4. Pingback: Taleb on education | Our Dinner Table

  5. Hi Seth – I have no comment on this yet. Just wanted to relay the link for more background on the PISA testing, etc. Have a good weekend.


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