Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Response to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency

by Joseph C. Krajacic

On December 3, 2013, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made strong statements to the Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) upon release of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. “The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA is straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”  The Secretary goes on to say, “That brutal truth, that urgent reality, must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.” But is this truly the case?  One would like to believe that prior to pontificating, the United States Secretary of Education did some research himself. 

In his speech to the OECD, Secretary Duncan professed progress “On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or what's known as the nation's report card, reading and math scores edged up nationally to new highs for fourth and eighth graders.”  What the Secretary failed to mention is the long term NAEP showed significant gains for all students for fourth and eighth grades in reading and mathematics from 1973 to 2012, but little statistically significant change for all students regardless of race, ethnicity or gender from 2008 to 2012.  Let the reader take note that Arne Duncan was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Education in January of 2009. 

In his article, Poor ranking on international test misleading about U.S. student performance, Stanford University reporter Jonathan Rabinovitz details from the revised report, What do international tests really how us about U.S. student performance? by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein that “score trends on these different tests can be very inconsistent, suggesting need for greater caution in interpreting any single test.  For example, declining trends in U.S. average PISA math scores do not track with trends in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and NAEP, which show substantial gains for all U.S. social classes.”  If  “PISA is an important comparative snapshot of U.S. performance,” then the TIMSS and NAEP are two other important “snapshots” with different views. The inconsistent findings amongst these tests make it difficult to understand Secretary Duncan’s firm assertion of “educational complacency and low expectations.”

Secretary Duncan proclaimed, “The PISA is an important, comparative snapshot of U.S. performance because the assessment is taken by 15-year olds in high schools around the globe.” He goes further to discount naysayers who blame poor and minority students for the U.S. performance by claiming white students also lag behind their global peers.  Is the “snapshot of U.S. performance” the Secretary refers to really representative of the United States?  In Asia Society’s Asia Blog by Jessica Kehayes, Has Recent Coverage of Global School Rankings Missed the Point? Tony Jackson states, If we take the top 10 percent of the most privileged students in the United States, their mean score would be near the top of the international rankings. As we go down the socioeconomic ladder, skills drop. This means that American students do not have equal access to a good education.” 

The Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports, “Socioeconomic inequality among U.S. students skew international comparisons of test scores…when differences in countries’ social class compositions are adequately taken into account, the performance of U.S. students in relation to students in other countries improves markedly.”   In a response to Andreas Schleicher’s comments regarding the 2013 EPI report, What do international tests really show about American student performance?, Carnoy and Rothstein theorized that the disproportionately higher concentration of disadvantaged students who participated in PISA may be due to their schools’ reliance on federal funding.  More affluent schools tend to rely less on federal funding and more on local tax dollars, thus declining PISA’s voluntary participatory acceptance.  In addition, schools in more affluent areas would most likely already have significant benchmark testing.

As stated on ED.gov biography of Secretary Arne Duncan, “Under Duncan's leadership at the Department, the Race to the Top program has the incentives, guidance, and flexibility it needs to support reforms in states. The Department also has focused billions of dollars to transform struggling schools, prompting nearly 1,000 low-performing schools nationwide to recruit new staff, adopt new teaching methods, and add learning time.”  If this is truly the case, then why does Secretary Duncan believe “The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA is straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation?”

Joseph C. Krajacic is a doctoral student in the Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  In his twenty-fourth year in secondary education, Joseph is presently an Associate Principal at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois.              

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