Posted in USA TODAY and can be found at http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2012-02-16/us-schools-global-ranking/53110494/1?csp=34news
By Greg Toppo,
The idea that U.S. public schools are falling behind the rest of the world is widely accepted, but a new analysis of international data suggests that using rankings to sort global winners from losers is often misguided, exaggerating tiny differences between countries that may be producing nearly identical results.
In other words, maybe U.S. schools are not as bad as you might think.
"Sometimes rankings can make small gaps appear big and vice versa," says researcher Tom Loveless of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution think tank.
Loveless, whose analysis is out today, looked at statistics showing that the United States in 2007 ranked 11th among 36 countries in fourth-grade math.
Re-examining the data, he found that the U.S. results actually placed the nation within a group of nations whose "statistically indistinguishable" scores ranked them, essentially, in fifth place worldwide. Those nations include Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
"Nobody ever digs that deep," Loveless says. "They just want the scores and the rankings and they don't ever really look at this part of it."
The sagging performance in the United States, compared with the rest of the industrialized world, has become a key theme among education reformers.
It was front-and-center in the education documentariesWaiting For Superman and Two Million Minutes.
Rick Hess, an education researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, says the data aren't always so conclusive.
For one thing, he says, it's not clear that all nations administer the tests uniformly.
Hess says international comparisons deserve "the good, hard-nosed kind of skepticism and shoe-leather reporting" that Loveless is doing.
"If this were part of a voucher debate, there'd be huge questions about whether the kids in the district schools and the private schools were being given the same assessment in the same way," he says. "But that has somehow just kind of been brushed aside when we're talking about the international context."
Loveless, a former educator who has taught in schools ranging from a Sacramento-area public school to Harvard, is a leading researcher on international education.
He has served since 2004 on the general assembly of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which administers the top two global skills tests.
His findings, part of Loveless' annual Brown Center Report on Education, also include the first major challenge to the Common Core standards, a proposed set of national academic benchmarks that President Obama and others say will improve schools nationwide.
Loveless says the standards are unlikely to produce improvements, because states have had their own "common" standards for decades, and variability among schools within each state remains wide.
Loveless says the Common Core will likely have little effect on achievement.
"The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools," he says.