I knew Mike Petrilli well, back when I was a trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Institute in D.C. But after I became disillusioned with testing and school choice, I didn’t see much of him anymore. We occasionally trade emails. I have a certain residual fondness for him. But I nonetheless think he is wrong and hold out hope that he will one day realize it.

But he is not ready.

He sent me this note recently:

Joanne gets it exactly right. Ready to concede a few points?

Mediocre U.S. scores: Don’t blame poverty
// Joanne Jacobs — Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”

The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.

Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.

While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue. Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”

Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude. The U.S. is not an outlier.

My response:

Except that the international scores predict nothing about the future. We were dead last in 1964. By now, we should be a Third World country. Except we are the biggest economy in the world with the most powerful military. How did all those dumb 15-year-olds manage that?

This is something I find hard to understand about the “reformers.” Why do they want the world to believe that we have the worst education system in the developed world? Why are they always eager to discredit our country? Who do they think created the goods and services, the technology and culture that has changed the world? It wasn’t just graduates of Andover, Exeter, and Deerfield Academy, or Lakeside and Sidwell Friends. It wasn’t graduates of charter schools. I remember the disgusting commercials that StudentsFirst produced and ran during the 2012 Olympics, portraying an American athlete as an overweight man in a tutu falling down; this was supposed to represent our flabby, effete, faltering education system. It struck me as crass anti-Americanism, as well as a few other ugly attributes.

The worst thing about our country is our tolerance for poverty, extreme income inequality, extreme wealth inequality, and segregation. The reformers scoff at such concerns and twist into pretzels trying to deny what is obvious. They are right that our education system must change, but not in the direction they seek. Our education system needs drastic change to get away from the soul-deadening conformity imposed by corporate reform. The status quo is stultifying, boring, and harmful to children and teachers.

How can I say more clearly that I don’t think the international test scores mean anything about the future? If destroying the joy of learning and the passion of discovery is the price of raising test scores, it is too high a price to pay.

Mike, please read Yong Zhao’s “Why China Has the Best and the Worst School System in the World?” Please watch the spectacular speech that he gave to the annual meeting of the Network for Public Education last April in Chicago. Please read Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner’s new book, “Most Likely to Succeed.” Open your mind. Create the world you want your children to live in, not a world where parents like you have to find private alternatives to escape what you and your rightwing friends are doing to our public schools.