Archives for category: International

James Harvey, director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, wrote a terrific article about international assessments in Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet.

He explains:

“These assessments were never intended to line up and rank nations against each other like baseball standings.

“That’s right. The statisticians and psychometricians who dreamed up these assessments 50 years ago stated explicitly that the question of whether “the children of country X [are] better educated that those of country Y” was “a false question” due to the innumerable social, cultural, and economic differences among nations. But, hey, that’s just a detail.”

Another point:

“2. The “international average” isn’t what you think it is. It’s not a weighted average of all the students in the world, but an average of the national averages.

“This means that when calculating the “international average,” the 5,600 students in Lichtenstein, the 700,000 in Ireland, the 860,000 in Finland, the 5 million in Canada, and the 14 million in Japan carry exactly the same weight as the 56 million students in the United States.”

And here is more:

“3. These assessments compare apples and oranges.

“Do you think there’s anything to be learned from comparing the average performance of 5,600 wealthy white students in Lichtenstein with 56 million diverse students in the United States? Really? How about comparing our students with students in corrupt dictatorships like Kazakhstan, religious monarchies like Qatar, or the wealthiest city in China (Shanghai) after it has driven the children of low-income migrants back to their home provinces? As a report released in January by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect,” makes clear, these are just a few of the peculiar comparisons that lie behind these international assessment results.”

“5. The horse-race tables ignore differences in poverty, inequity, and social stress among nations.

“Fifty years of research in the United States and abroad documents a powerful correlation between low student achievement and poverty and disadvantagement. Yet reports on these international assessments blandly turn a blind eye on the implications of this research. The data are clear: Poverty rates among American students are five times higher than they are in Finland. China aside, we have the highest rates of income inequality in the nine nations examined in The Iceberg Effect. The rate of violent deaths in American communities is eight times the average rate in the other eight nations and 13 times greater than it is in Japan. All of that is ignored in the orgy of publicity organized by the sponsoring agencies of these assessments to highlight their findings.”

All in all, a brilliant analysis of the limitations of these tests that have promoted the deeply flawed agenda of test and punish.

A new report released by UNICEF at the World Economic Forum in Davos says that inequitable funding is an obstacle to educational equity. Rich kids in poor countries get more funding from the government than poor kids. You may know that the United States is one of the few countries where more public money is spent on affluent students than on poor students. In most other advanced nations, more money is spent on the neediest children. David Sirota wrote about the report for the International Business Times.


Sirota writes:


The trend documented by the report shows poor, developing-world countries mimicking a trend in the United States, which stands out as one of the only industrialized countries that devotes less public money to educating students from low-income families than on educating students from high-income families.


According to a recent analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it is one of the few economically developed nations that tends to spend more public resources to educate wealthy students than to educate low-income students. A 2011 U.S. Department of Education report found that in the United States “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding, leaving students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.”


Sirota points out that one of the cosponsors of the report is the Gates Foundation, which “has been criticized for using its partnerships with other organizations to promote a particular education ideology.”


And he adds:


In the United States, the foundation has specifically championed privately run charter schools, which often siphon resources from traditional public schools. The foundation has also promoted the Common Core curriculum, which has been criticized as a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to education content. Both the curriculum and the larger shift to technology focused charter schools could have commercial benefits for Microsoft, the firm founded by Bill Gates.


When asked whether Unicef is prescribing a similar approach to international education aid for low-income countries, meaning charter schools, Common Core-style curriculum and a focus on technology, Brown first touted “the right of individual countries to make their own decisions about how they shape their own education system according to their needs and their economic policies and economic objectives.”


However, he seemed to echo some of the core themes of the Gates Foundation, touting what he called “international best practices … which learn from the experience of charter schools.”


He said lawmakers should be looking at “how we can disseminate the best practices that exist in some countries and persuade other countries that they are worth looking at.”


“We are learning that the quality of teachers, which is what the Gates Foundation has emphasized matters, the quality of head teachers and leadership in schools matters, the curriculum itself is an issue that has to be debated at all times because you’ve got to learn from what works and what doesn’t work … and how you apply technology and use it most effectively,” he said.


Curious that the spokesman for the report said that charter schools exemplify “international best practices.” One wonders if he was thinking of “no excuses” charters, or Gulen charters, or for-profit charters.

If you think that international test scores are a valuable indicator of educational success (I don’t), you should read this article. When poverty is recognized as an important variable, the scores of U.S. students are among the best in the world.

I don’t consider international test scores to be an accurate meassure of school quality. I am persuaded by Yong Zhao’s work that high test scores may be the result of relentless test prep, which distorts education and discourages creativity.

The report released today–titled “Schools in Context”– by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League tells a different story about international comparisons by looking at a broad range of indicators, not just test scores.


One part of the report is called “The Iceberg Effect,” and it shows what happens when you look only at the tip of the iceberg–test scores. A more complex and more interesting portrait of schools and society emerges when you look at the whole iceberg, not just the part that is easily measured by a standardized test. See the pdf here.


The full report of “Schools in Context” may be located in this pdf file.


The countries included in this contextual study are the United States, China, Canada, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.



The National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League released  a report called “School Reform in Context,” based on data about children, schools, and the social context of schooling in the U.S. and other nations. This study challenges the conventional claim that our education system is falling behind the rest of the world. Seen in context, our school system has performed admirably in creating the world’s most highly educated workforce, but faces ongoing challenges of high levels of child poverty, inequity, and violence in society.



New study finds U.S. has the world’s most educated workforce—but students face unparalleled levels of poverty, inequity and violence


Washington, DC. January 20– A new study released today challenges the practice of ranking nations by educational test scores and questions conventional wisdom that the U.S.educational system has fallen badly behind school systems abroad.


In their report, School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, the Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable examined six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China. They then examined 24 “indicators” within those dimensions.


Of the nine nations, the United States remains the wealthiest with the most highly educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed, and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.


“Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.


Despite high educational levels, the United States also reflects high levels of economic inequity and social stress compared to the other nations. All are related to student performance. Measures included rates of childhood poverty, income inequality and violence. For example, in American public schools today, the rate of childhood poverty is five times greater than it is in Finland. Rates of violent death are 13 times greater than the average for the other nations, with children in some communities reporting they have witnessed shootings, knifings, and beatings as “ordinary, everyday events.”


The study is a unique analysis, which for the first time compares K-12 education internationally on an array of social and economic indicators, not just test scores. The goal was to look at the whole iceberg, not just the tip—and provide a clearer snapshot of each country’s performance, including its wealth, diversity, community safety, and support for families and schools.



Some key findings:


  •   Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.
  •   Social Stress: The U.S.reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.
  •   Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.
  •   Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.
  •   Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.
  •   System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.
  • “Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. To avoid that scoreboard mentality, we need to look at many measures important to shaping our future citizens. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx.
  • A call for more nuanced assessments
  • American policymakers from both political parties have a history of relying on large, international assessments to judge United States’ performance in education. In 2013, the press reported that American students were falling behind when compared to 61 other countries and a few cities including Shanghai. In that comparative assessment—called the Program for International Student Assessment—PISA controversially reported superior scores for Shanghai.
  • “We don’t oppose using international assessments as one measure of performance. But as educators and policymakers, we need to compare ourselves with similar nations and on a broader set of indicators that put school performance in context—not just a single number in an international ranking,” said Harvey.
  • “Our study suggests the U.S. has the most educated workforce, yet students confront shockingly high rates of poverty and violence. Research shows that those larger issues, outside the classroom, are serious threats to student learning,” noted HML Executive Director Jack McKay.
  • The report, a summary and a video are available at: and

About the sponsors

The Horace Mann League ( is an association of educators


committed to the


principles of public education. Its members believe the U.S. public school system is an


indispensable agency for strengthening our democracy and a vital, dynamic influence in


American life.


The National Superintendents Roundtable ( is a learning community of school superintendents who learn, discuss and meet regularly with worldwide experts,

 sharing best practices and leading for the future.

National Superintendents Roundtable Contact: Rhenda Meiser
(206) 465-9532


Horace Mann League Contact: Gary Marx, President
(703) 938-8725

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Professor Dr. Jochen Krautz, a professor of art education in Germany, who is one of a growing number of European scholars who do not like the test-based accountability that is being enforced internationally by the OECD through the PISA examinations. He and colleagues are producing articles to argue against test-based accountability and for recognition that teachers are the experts in teaching. I look forward to posting more articles from scholars in other countries who recognize the absurdity of an international horse race for higher scores on standardized tests. The goal is not “real education,” he says, but the ability to answer the questions posed by unaccountable bureaucrats.


This is one of the articles he sent me: Professor Dr. Hans Peter Klein wrote “Quality Management by Marking Schemes Dumping.” It is translated from German to English, which causes an occasional surprising wording (like the title), but you will get the point if you read the 2 page article. It begins like this:


It has long been all over town: The methods of alleged “quality management” in education do not lead to greater knowledge and skills, rather they conceal the fact that students know less and are capable of less. Ever more beginners, particularly in the natural sciences, lack basic knowledge and skills to successfully take up and complete their studies. However, the kind of trouble caused by ministerial guidelines which teacher teams are facing and let out only behind closed doors, is something the public must know about.


How knowledge and skills develop as the basis of real education and how this can be achieved best during lessons, has been well-known for a long time. Why are teachers not given the freedom to take independent decisions how to organize their lessons according to their professional training? After all, they are the experts.

I don’t know how I missed this article when it appeared in The New York Times. It was written by Helen Gao, and it supports what Yong Zhao has written about the highly inegalitarian consequences of China’s test-driven culture.

Whenever you hear someone talking about high standards and rigorous exams as drivers of equity, please question that assumption. Please understand that standards and tests are meant to discriminate among those at the top and those who are not. They do not raise test scores, they measure the ability to answer test questions correctly. The haves dominate the top, while the children of have-nots cluster at the bottom. This is true on every standardized test in every nation. Gradations in test scores will determine the future for many.

She writes that the best and the brightest students are admitted to two elite universities:

“They are destined for bright futures: In a few decades, they will fill high-powered positions in government and become executives in state banks and multinational companies. But their ever-expanding career possibilities belie the increasingly narrow slice of society they represent. The percentage of students at Peking University from rural origins, for example, has fallen to about 10 percent in the past decade, down from around 30 percent in the 1990s. An admissions officer at Tsinghua University told a reporter last year that the typical undergraduate was “someone who grew up in cities, whose parents are civil servants and teachers, go on family trips at least once a year, and have studied abroad in high school.”

“China’s state education system, which offers nine years of compulsory schooling and admits students to colleges strictly through exam scores, is often hailed abroad as a paradigm for educational equity. The impression is reinforced by Chinese students’ consistently stellar performance in international standardized tests. But this reputation is built on a myth.

“While China has phenomenally expanded basic education for its people, quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, it has also created a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and well-connected citizens, thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.

“A huge gap in educational opportunities between students from rural areas and those from cities is one of the main culprits. Some 60 million students in rural schools are “left-behind” children, cared for by their grandparents as their parents seek work in faraway cities. While many of their urban peers attend schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to grasp advanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified instructors.”

I recently received a letter from Professor Dr. Jochen Krautz, a professor of art education at the University of Wuppertal. Dr. Krautz is a critic of the PISA examinations, for reasons he makes clear in the posted article, which he wrote with economist Silja Graupe.


The article is aptly titled “From Yardstick to Hegemony,” and it analyzes the steady expansion of PISA, first seen as a yardstick, but eventually evolving into a means of disrupting the cultures and educational systems of every nation it tests.


As early as 1961, the OECD issued a conference volume in which its goals were clear:


The conference was explicitly not about setting standards which would do justice to respective national traditions of education and education policy. On the contrary, the new standard was geared toward overruling all traditional concepts. The same conference volume states that, with regard to developing countries, it would be “nothing short of cutting a million people loose from a way of life that has constituted their living environment for hundreds or thousands of years. Everything achieved by these countries‘ schools and education until now has served social and religious aims which have primarily allowed for resignation and spiritual comfort; things that completely go against any economic sense of progress. Changing these century-old approaches may perhaps be the most difficult yet also most important task for education to accomplish in developing countries.”5 It is important to note here that the OECD includes the nations of Europe in this circle of developing countries. Germany, for example, “due to its decentralized school administration system (…) may also be considered a somewhat underdeveloped country with regard to its education policy“.6 The obvious consequence is that Germany is to be subjected to cultural uprooting as well.

The OECD program has declared war on the established plurality of educational goals and discourses (which have consistently reflected and renewed these goals) in order to replace it with a single novel concept: “Schools should lay the very foundation for the attitudes, desires and expectations motivating a nation to pursue progress and to think and act economically.”7 It is no longer about teaching people how to set their own standards in a socially responsible manner. Instead, the goal of education is to achieve “competency in constant adaptation“,8 particularly with regard to adaptation to abstract economic demands. The OECD Conference documentation of 1961 declares unequivocally:9 “It goes without saying that the educational system must be an aggregate of the economy, it is just as necessary to prepare people for the economy as real assets and machines. The educational system is now equal to highways, steel works and chemical fertilizers”.10 Thus the claim can be made “without blushing and with good economic conscience“ that “the accumulation of intellectual capital is comparable to the accumulation of real capital – and in the long range may outmatch it”.11 The OECD has adhered to this same human capital theory until the very present. In the OECD book Human Capital of 2007 one reads for instance that “individual capabilities” are „a kind of capital – an asset just like a spinning wheel or a flour mill” which can “yield returns”.12 Congruously the OECD has since 1961 considered education to be an „economic investment” in humans,13 where teachers – as the “production factor”14 – and students – as the “raw material“15 – play a decisive role. Today the willingness and ability to adapt is even considered by the OECD as a core competence.16 Its concept of literacy – embodied in the term reading competency – has meanwhile become the basis for Germany’s education standards and is primarily geared to “how well adults use information to function in society and the economy”….


The environment to which pupils and students are to adapt is not the economy of real experience but rather a mere ideal concept generated by mainstream economists, particularly those of the Chicago School of Economics who, in their pursuit of “economic imperialism”18, have applied it to education: Its concept of a market is a purely abstract super-conscious price and coordination mechanism according to which all human activity must be aligned. What this unrealistic worldview setting in turn impedes is any critique or will to change because rather than being understood by the public as a theoretical construct it is, according to the neoliberal economist August Hayek, accepted by most as an immediately evident truth.19 Whether they are true or false, economic theories and all assessments based on these (such as PISA) determine reality. Those who choose criteria as a yardstick for everything else establish an arbitrary point of standardization where verification need not be feared.20 These ungrounded criteria then become – untested and without further thought – the defining norm for all further actions. As long as people believe having more PISA points is better than less in order to be successful economically they will, of course, do everything they can to acquire more. Education is then forced to uncritically yield to the pressure of comparative assessment, even if it is based on pure assertion.


If you believe that education should be based on humanistic goals, or that it should be tied to concepts of democratic citizenship, or to some other paradigm, you are out of luck. PISA has decided that the purpose of education is economic competition and development.


Please read this essay. It is enlightening.


Ever wonder how Chinese students blow the roof off international tests? If you read Yong Zhao’s wonderful book Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and the Worst) Education System in the World, you know why. Test-prep, test-prep, test-prep. Officials at OECD, which sponsors the PISA international tests, insist that test-prep has nothing to do with it, but Yong Zhao proves they are wrong. One of the riveting stories in his book is about a small town–Maotanchang–whose main industry is a test-prep factory. Yong Zhao warns that the Chinese testing regime produces high test scores, but it is authoritarian and crushes creativity, individuality, originality, and risk-taking.



The New York Times Magazine contains a gripping story by Brook Larmer about what happens at the test-prep factory in Maotanchang. There are more students in the school than there are residents in the town. The students start school every day at 6:20 a.m., and their last class ends at 10:50 p.m. Preparing for the big exam that determines whether they will gain admission to a college, whether it will be a first-tier college or something less is all-consuming, because their exam score determines their life path. The story focuses on a student named Yang, who is hoping to pass the college entrance exam (the “gaokao”).



China’s treadmill of standardized tests has produced, along with high levels of literacy and government control, some of the world’s most scarily proficient test-takers. Shanghai high-school students have dominated the last two cycles of the Program for International Student Assessment exam, leading more than one U.S. official to connect this to a broader “Sputnik moment” of coming Chinese superiority. Yet even as American educators try to divine the secret of China’s test-taking prowess, the gaokao is coming under fire in China as an anachronism that stifles innovative thought and puts excessive pressure on students. Teenage suicide rates tend to rise as the gaokao nears. Two years ago, a student posted a shocking photograph online: a public high-school classroom full of students hunched over books, all hooked up to intravenous drips to give them the strength to keep studying….


For a town that turns test preparation into a mechanical act of memorization and regurgitation, Maotanchang remains a place of desperate faith and superstition. Most students have a talisman of some sort, whether it’s red underwear (red clothing is believed to be lucky), shoes from a company called Anta (their check-mark logo is reminiscent of a correct answer) or a pouch of “brain rejuvenating” tea bought from vendors outside the school gates. The town’s best-selling nutritional supplements are called Clear Mind and Six Walnuts (the nuts are considered mind-boosters in large part because they resemble brains). Yang’s parents did not seem especially superstitious, but they paid high rent to live close to the mystical tree and its three-foot-high pile of incense ash. “If you don’t pray to the tree, you can’t pass,” Yang says, repeating a local saying.
Just up the alley from Yang’s room, I met a fortune teller sitting on a stool next to a canvas chart. For $3.40, the man in the ill-fitting pinstripe suit could predict the future: marriage, children, death — and gaokao scores. “Business is good these days,” he said with a broken smile. An older man in an argyle sweater and a Chairman Mao haircut watched our exchange. This was Yang Qiming, a retired chemistry teacher, who told me he had seen Maotanchang grow from an impoverished school of 800 students, when he joined the faculty in 1980, to the juggernaut it is today — a remarkable transformation during a period when most rural schools have withered. Even so, he grumbled about the deadening effects of rote learning. “With all this studying, the kids’ brains become rigid,” he said. “They know how to take a test, but they can’t think for themselves.”



Pearson conquers the world! It holds contracts for Commin Core testing, for textbooks and curriculum Ligned to the Common Core, it owns the GED and a program for assessing would-be teachers (the edTPA), and it owns online charters called Connections Academy. Students are likelier to get higher scores on Common Core tests created by Pearson if they use Pearson texts and curriculum. Have I forgotten anything?


In 2011, Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing company, won the contract to design the 2015 international assessment (PISA), the Program in International Student Assessment. This is the test that gives Secretary Duncan the opportunity to lambaste public schools and teachers every time the results are announced, without reference to the huge and growing income and wealth disparities that account for a large share of the test score gaps between haves and have-nots..


Pearson’s advisory panel includes Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director of the OECD in charge of PISA. It also includes Michael Barber (now chief education advisor to Pearson, formerly at McKinsey, also known as “Mr. Deliverology,” for his fervent belief in standards, testing and targets) and Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, noted for his proposal that schools should use test scores to identify and “deselect” (fire) the bottom 5-10% of teachers on a regular basis to weed out “bad teachers.” These are the masters of the educational universe.




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