The progress illusion

It's tough to view the results from the 2006 administration of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Test (PIRL), released yesterday, with anything other than alarm.

Almost six years after No Child Left Behind was signed into law, American fourth-graders are reading no better than in 2001--a very different message than the one promulgated by the states, most of whom have reported historic gains in reading over the same period of time.

That alone would be cause for concern. But students in many other lands are not treading water like our kids; they're performing better on international reading tests. In 2001, three countries scored better than the United States; last year, ten surpassed us.

One thing should be clear: America's long-term prospects are dim when kids in so many places are making solid gains while our children stagnate. Worse, we're talking here about fourth grade--the level where, on myriad domestic measures, U.S. youngsters do best. (Thus the widespread angst about "middle-school fall-off.")

Of further concern: the countries that leapfrogged the U.S. between 2001 and 2006 include two Asian economic powerhouses (Hong Kong and Singapore) and a newly emboldened Russia.

America, it seems, is being passed by others around the globe with whom we are in stiffening competition for economic primacy and political influence. 

Yet when it comes to bold suggestions for improving our education system and our international competitiveness, the current crop of presidential candidates is, if not exactly silent (for they talk endlessly about everything), unimaginative and ill-informed.

Instead of trotting out hackneyed education suggestions straight from the bosom of the school establishment (see editorial above), they should be conceptualizing schooling for a modern, internationally competitive, 21st-century nation.

Here's one: It's time for the U.S. to install national academic standards and tests.

While most other nations, including many of the highest performers, operate under one set of educational standards, the U.S. struggles with a patchwork of 50 different standards and tests. Many states expect very little of their children--surely part of the reason that young Americans don't shine on international measures. (See here.)

No Child Left Behind may smell like a national law, but students and schools in Mississippi and Massachusetts are evaluated by separate assessments that couldn't be more different. Last time I checked, though, reading is the same in Biloxi as in Boxborough.

Until the U.S. education system drops its insistence on archaic--and obviously dysfunctional--notions of "local control" we must expect our children to be outscored by their peers across the world.

What ought to be controlled locally--by parents and educators and individual schools, not big bureaucracies--is how we educate kids. What ought to be determined nationally is what's most important for all those kids to learn, at least in math, English, science, and history, and whether they're learning it. Tight as to ends, loose as to means. That's the modern formula for successful management. Our primary-secondary education system, however, has it exactly backward: heavily regulated as to means, laid back about ends.

Get that straightened out and our schools, our kids, and our economy will flourish. Keep it wrong and we'll continue to be outstripped by countries that get it right.

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