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Whose schools are the best?

Byline: Albert B. Southwick


Clive McFarlane did a useful thing the other day when he noted in his column that Massachusetts schools are ranked near the top globally, at least by some studies. It's nice to hear good things about our educational system. But claims of school attainments open a bramble patch of controversy.

According to the 2011 issue of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Massachusetts students tied for second place worldwide in science achievement. Only Singapore ranked higher.

When it came to math, our state public schools came in fifth, behind Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

That is encouraging, but we shouldn't break out the champagne just yet. Those findings don't jibe with the ratings put out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. They don't come close.

According to the OECD calculations, on the global scale the U.S. is 17th in reading and science, and even lower in math. Our students trail those in Poland, Sweden, Iceland, Belgium, and many Western countries, according to the OECD.

The OECD is an international organization that, in partnership with the International Actuarial Association, has been trying to establish guidelines to measure global achievements, country by country. Its Programme for International Student Assessment is highly respected and is widely used by policymakers around the globe.

The contrast between the OECD figures and those cited by Mr. McFarlane is striking. Both cannot be right. Perhaps neither is. But the discrepancy is one more reminder that rating human achievement on a graph is tricky business.

During the recent presidential campaign, Mitt Romney declared that Massachusetts schools are ranked first in the nation. He was challenged by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who claimed that spot for his state. He added that Maryland schools had been No.1 for four years straight.

Who was right? There's no way to tell.

Much depends on who is doing the testing and what is being tested. Massachusetts does very well on the tests reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP tests fourth-graders, eighth-graders and 12th-graders every two years in reading and math. Mr. Romney probably was thinking of those tests when he made his claim. NAEP is sometimes called "the nation's report card."

Gov. O'Malley, on the other hand, marches to a different drummer. He no doubt was relying on figures published by Education Week. According to those calculations, Maryland for the last four years has been listed as No. 1 among the states in regard to such attributes as teacher incentives and allocation, college readiness, early childhood education, economy and workforce.

Just to confuse things a bit more, a Harvard University study last year concluded that Massachusetts students "perform at levels on par with some of the world's most advanced countries," and had the highest percentage of students at the advanced math level, right up there with Belgium, Canada, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

Massachusetts passed a string of school reforms in the 1990s, which may have paved the way for some impressive school improvements. But some think that the current emphasis on MCAS tests is overdone and not conducive to better academic achievement in the long run. That controversy continues and probably will for some time.

It is worth noting that the two school systems most often cited as the best on the globe are those of Finland and South Korea. Their educational philosophies and teaching methods are vastly different.

Finland locates its schoolrooms in scenic and relaxed surroundings, and strives to let the students share in the schooling process, which can be flexible. Finnish schools don't assign homework.

South Korean schools, on the other hand, are rigid and authoritarian. Homework is plentiful and enforced, both in the classroom and in the home. Many South Korean parents sign up their children at their own expense for special tutorial instruction.

Yet those two school systems turn out some outstanding graduates. How can that be?

I'm not an educator, but I think the statistics show that test results are not the whole answer to our educational dilemmas. Tests can be valuable, yes, but they can be misleading. Rote learning is important as well, but it is only part of the process. Intuition and imagination are hard to measure, but they may lie at the heart of real education.

What is important is not whether some organization ranks Massachusetts schools ahead of Maryland's or vice versa, but whether American schools are preparing their graduates properly for life in this ever more complex society.

All these various ratings show that they are really trying.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Dec 20, 2012
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