Yong Zhao is one of the foremost experts in the nation on international comparisons. He was born and educated in China, but has worked in American universities for a number of years. He recently moved to the University of Kansas, where he holds a Distinguished Professorship.

He analyzes here how U.S. students in fourth and eighth grades performed on the TIMSS, which is focused on mathematics and science. Politicians like to bemoan the fact that U.S. students are not #1 in the world on this test or on PISA. As I have previous written, American students were never #1 on international tests. Back in the mid-1960s, when these tests began and fewer nations participated, we were dead last. I wrote about it here and here and also in my book Reign of Error, where I documented in detail how poorly we have always done on these tests, how little it means, and why these tests have zero predictive value for our economy. Also, see here.

Open the links to see the scores and graphs.

Zhao finds little change in the relative standing of American students, despite 15 years of berating teachers, students, and public schools. We changed the standards, the curriculum, and the tests, but none of that made much difference.

Zhao writes:

Reflections and Questions

Can we ever catch up? Is it necessary to catch up?…
It seems clear that after tremendous efforts to catch up to the high performing education systems in test scores, the U.S. has not succeeded. Two questions arise. First, can the U.S. ever catch up? Second, is it really necessary to catch up? My answer to both questions are no. Interested readers can read my books Catching up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization and World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.

Is it worth the cost?

While test scores went up in math in both the U.S. and East Asian countries, more students lost confidence in math and valued math less. If it is true that whatever policies and practices that resulted in higher test scores also make students less confident and less interested in math, are these policies and practices really educationally sound? Don’t we want more people have confidence in math and value math?

How much does curriculum matter?

The U.S. has “fixed” its curriculum but has not narrowed the gap. All the efforts that went into fixing the curriculum did not produce the results promised by those who adamantly believed and argued that American schools have lower standard and fragmented curriculum. Was the diagnosis wrong? Does curriculum and standards really matter that much?

Should we keep “fixing” American teachers?

TIMSS and other international tests have resulted in waves of teacher bashing in America, suggesting that they are less qualified and less mathematically knowledgeable than their counterparts in East Asian education systems. Bashed have also been teacher education programs in the U.S.. But the data does not really support the blames. Perhaps American teachers are great at doing something more important than simply raising test scores.

My Conclusion
I have questioned the value of international tests, and for that matter any standardized test, for improving our children’s education in many places. Test scores simply do not reflect what our children need to live in the future, let alone what they need to defend and improve a democratic society. Test scores are simply the indicator of one’s ability in taking the test. We should never read too much into it and attempt to draw conclusions that fuels actions that could affect the future of millions of children and the future of our society.

I have also raised questions on many occasions about copying policies and practices from other systems. It is not to say that we cannot learn from others. But education is both deeply rooted in and an integral part of culture, hence they mutually enhance and perpetuate, as I have argued in my book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Different cultures impose different values and expectations on education. Different cultures also support and suppress different educational practices. Unless one is ready and able to redefine one’s culture and society, copying isolated educational policies rarely works.

The lesson from all these: Stop copying others’ past and start inventing our own future.