Connecticut’s economy is booming with a job base that has not seen such growth in 17 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported for the 10th straight month, U.S. payrolls grew by more than 200,000, the longest streak in nearly 20 years. Many factors contribute to the recovering economy, but one factor is conspicuously absent from media reports and political discourse: public schools and the dedicated teachers who work in them.
Why the oversight? Maintaining a competitive workforce has often been a primary reason for school reform for decades.
In 1983, A Nation at Risk stated, “The public understands the primary importance of education as the foundation for a satisfying life, an enlightened and civil society, a strong economy, and a secure nation.” In 2006, President Bush announced the creation of the American Competitiveness Initiative. The initiative asserted, “The bedrock of America’s competitiveness is a well-educated and skilled workforce.”
More recently, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced his 2012 agenda for education legislation by stating in a press release, schools “that are missing the mark are causing serious damage to Connecticut’s next generation workforce — and our overall economic competitiveness.”
School reformers who assert that failing public schools are the cause of economic deterioration tell this narrative time and time again, but it’s a false narrative supported primarily by standardized tests scores, the validity of which has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism.
One yardstick for measuring our economic health against that of other nations is, curiously, not an economic one, it’s PISA: the Program of International Student Assessment.
PISA is an international assessment given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries every three years. The most recent assessment was in 2012 and the next cycle of PISA will take place in 2015. The scores of the United States on this assessment are never very good and are often used to convince the American public that its public school system is failing.
For example, in 2012, the U.S. average score in mathematics literacy was lower than the average for the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and lower than 29 other education systems. (Connecticut’s rankings are better than those of the United States overall.) The countries of Japan, Vietnam and the Slovak Republic all scored higher than the United States.
Reporting of the scores is often accompanied by a lot of hand wringing that PISA scores reflect our national economic health; like an oracle, mediocre scores are thought to predict our nation’s economic demise. Even the New York Times chimed in: “The lessons from those high-performing countries can no longer be ignored by the United States if it hopes to remain competitive.” (New York Times, “Why Other Countries Teach Better”, Dec.17, 2013)
With such poor student outcomes that supposedly reveal a failing education system, one would think the U.S. would have subsequent poor rankings on economic measures, but this is not the case.
Each year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index ranks approximately 140 countries for their overall competitiveness. In 2012-13, the United States was ranked seventh, ahead of Japan, the Slovak Republic and Vietnam, which were ranked 10th, 71st and 75th respectively.
However, when we look at the 2012 PISA mathematics scores, Vietnam ranked just behind Germany. With those PISA scores, one would think that Vietnam would have a much higher competitiveness ranking than 75th. In 2013-2014, the United States ranked fifth on the Competitive Index and, in 2014-2015, the United States ranked third, ahead of Finland and Germany. Only Switzerland and Singapore had a higher ranking.
School reform advocates often conflate PISA scores, and standardized tests scores in general, with economic prosperity and security. However, the scores are unrelated and do not indicate the strength of our economy.
Standardized test scores are too often used as part of a marketing campaign to mislead the public and discredit the public schools. Those who use them in this way like to remind us of the important role schools play in the economy, but praising schools when the economy is thriving does not fit their narrative of failing schools.
The silence is deafening.
James Mulholland is a veteran Hartford teacher.