The Nation's Pulse

Bushwhacked

Compare your kids' school to the rest of the country -- or world -- with an updated tool from the Bush Institute.

By 12.19.12

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Ask any suburban-dwelling parent about their child’s school and they’ll likely do one of two things: feign indifference or boast. Sure, they’ll admit, their school could offer a larger variety of programs or certain teachers could do better about keeping in touch with parents. But overall, they’re happy with their school. In fact, many have intentionally forgone urban life, believing suburban schools to be better.

The Bush Institute recently released an updated version of its Global Report Card, a one-of-a-kind tool that offers the ability to stack any school district against the rest of the world. The results, which show even some suburban schools rate poorly, should put a whole new spin on education reform.

Education reform has gone through cyclical phases, from the 1980s to George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” But one underlying theme has remained more or less constant. As a 2011 piece in the New York Times put it: “The policies and rhetoric changed, often dramatically, but the underlying assumption remained the same: Our nation’s schools are in dire need of systemic reform.”

Last year, Harvard University’s study, “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?” cited statistics that found that American students rank 32nd in the world in math. Still, most parents and policy-hawking wonks assume its urban-area schools dragging the rest of the country’s down, and that kids aren’t as dumb as they score.

The Bush Institute’s Global Report Card helps smash those assumptions to pieces. The tool is at once simple and devastating. With a simple search, you can pinpoint any specific public school district and see how it rates among schools in the rest of the country, or even the world (results are based on 2009 standardized testing data).

For example, while the Minneapolis school district most of my childhood neighborhood friends attended ranks low (22 percent in math), this is no surprise given its urban location. I now live in a county nestled among three of the 10 wealthiest in the country. Schools in Fairfax County (the Orange County of the East Coast) just to my north tested at 51 percent in math, compared to the rest of the world. Even these schools still don’t stand a chance against those in countries like Finland, which, according to the 2009 PISA scores, came in second in science, third in reading, and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. (Other statistics show Finland leading in literacy and math.) Considering the wealth permeating the Northern Virginia area, students here should be doing significantly better.

According to an infographic posted last year on the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education’s blog, the United States spends more money per student than Finland -- nearly $8,000, compared to $5,600. Or, as they put it, “the U.S. is the clear leader in total annual spending, but ranks 9th in Science performance and 10th in Math” among 11 countries.

The Bush Institute itself shies away from making any specific, aggressive recommendations for education reform. Instead, the goal is to provide a razor-sharp look into what’s really going on in education at a micro level. It is up to the rest of us -- parents, teachers and policymakers alike -- to take responsibility and propose legitimate, effective reform once and for all.

Among the most obvious inferences one can make from the tool is that more money doesn’t necessarily equal better education. But if money doesn’t improve education, what does?  Smithsonian Magazine’s excellent report last year, “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” examined that issue. There appear to be many contributing factors; some the United States cannot or likely will not replicate, such as Finland’s state-provided maternity leave, subsidized day care to parents, subsidies for parents, and free student health care.

But three important factors stick out -- things the U.S. should examine and replicate if possible. First, size. In one of the tougher neighborhoods of Finland, there are seven students to every one teacher or aide. U.S. schools have, on average, one teacher for every 15 students. Obviously Finland’s tiny population -- 5.4 million compared to more than 300 million in the U.S. -- plays a role. Second, teacher education. In Finland, teachers are required to “earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities -- at state expense,” the Smithsonian article states. The occupation is paid the same respect as the fields of medicine and law. Finally, there’s a dynamic I’ll call creative teaching. Rather than follow a rigid curriculum that may bore children and prevent real-life learning:

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?

Of course, these ideas are easier to discuss than to implement. But we’ve been debating with no real results for several decades. It's time we took action and joined the rest of the world at the top of the educational food chain.

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.