I list here Christopher Cross' claims in his column,"How to Confront America's International Skills Gap," (June 24, 2015) and my responses to each.
1. Claim: American students score lower than many other countries on tests of literacy.
Response: Study after study has shown that when we control for poverty, American students do quite well on international tests.
2. Claim: According to a study done by OECD, Americans with graduate degrees do worse on international tests than those with graduate degrees in other countries.
Response: The report showed that Americans with MA's and research degrees do not do as well as some others on the PIAAC numeracy scale. The report did not indicate what field that MA was in. Even so, only MA holders in three countries (out of 17) did significantly better than American MA degree holders.
3. Claim: Companies are unable to find qualified employees, especially in high-tech fields.
Response: Several studies have reported that there is a surplus of scientifically trained job candidates, not a shortage.
4. Claim: The solution to these problems is to not abandon higher standards and accountability.
Response: Even if these problems were real, there is no evidence that higher standards and more tests lead to greater achievement.
By Christopher T. Cross
Are we unwittingly headed toward an era of education disarmament?
As one school year ends and we look forward to a new year, the national
news has been switching from coverage of education issues like testing and the
common core to Iran and wars around the world. I suddenly had the thought that
we might be risking unilateral education disarmament as we watch policymakers
engage in endless debates about foreign policy, while not attending to a
looming domestic crisis.
Uppermost in my mind is a report issued earlier
this year by the Educational Testing Service, based on data from the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international
think tank, ranking adult skills in 22 developed nations. The data should give
us all pause as we consider the future course of education policy.
Using data from the recent Program for International Assessment of Adult
Competencies, the OECD reports that in literacy the United States outscored
only Spain and Italy among the 22 participating nations. That means that adults
in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Australia, the Czech
Republic, Canada, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and France all did better than adults
in the United States.
“How will our students at least
match the skill and knowledge levels of our economic competitors if we do not
raise expectations and standards?”
In numeracy, we tied with Spain and Italy for last place, behind those
same nations, plus England, Italy, and Spain, which all scored better than
adults in the United States. Worse is that America’s young adults, ages 16 to
24, also scored at these terrible levels. And although one might assume that
the younger populations would best older adults, that’s not the case.
For those who believe college-degree holders do well, U.S. graduates
with bachelor’s degrees outscored their international peers only in Poland and
Spain. At even higher educational levels, those with graduate degrees, the
United States is in the bottom rank, with only Ireland, Poland, and Spain
falling below our graduates.
All in all, this is really bad news, especially when coupled with the
rising opposition to the adoption of standards that require U.S. students to learn
at higher levels and have their knowledge and skills measured against those
There are those who would say that none of this matters, that the U.S.
education system need not be as good as those in other nations because our
economy is doing just fine. The reality is far different. As those who have
studied the issue point out and as people who fill job openings discover, U.S.
companies are facing a shortage of high-skilled domestic talent. This has
resulted in an ever-increasing flow of work going to developing nations,
especially in high-tech fields.
Historians and economists cite, as a major factor in the United States’
becoming a world power in the 20th century, our education system moving from
enrolling few students in high school to nearly universal enrollment. In fact,
for decades the United States led the world in the percentage of high school
graduates. Today, it ranks 21st among leading nations. Denmark, Portugal,
Slovenia, and Germany, among others, far exceed us. Even more alarming is that
minority students, students from poor households, English-language learners,
and those with disabilities are almost always below the national averages in
both academic achievement and graduation, yet collectively they represent what
will become the major portion of the future U.S. labor force.
So, while we contemplate abandoning higher standards and eliminating
assessments that provide valuable data showing us what our students are
learning, we need to ask: How will we know which students and student groups
need extra time, teaching, and resources? How will our students at least match
the skill and knowledge levels of our economic competitors if we do not raise
expectations and standards? How will we assure the continuation of our
democracy if citizens are unable to analyze complex information and data when
they vote and participate in civic affairs?
What does the outcry against standardized tests really mean? Each state
demands that drivers pass a standardized test. Doctors, accountants, and
lawyers cannot practice their professions without proving their competency. As
Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado and a former Los Angeles
superintendent, is fond of pointing out, he had to pass a standardized test to
get a pilot’s license. Yes, we have relied too much on fill-in-the-bubble
tests, but are we willing to invest in more-sophisticated exams?
“How will we assure the continuation
of our democracy if citizens are unable to analyze complex information and data
when they vote and participate in civic affairs?”
Parents must accept the fact that students today may well be taught math
that is more advanced than what they learned in the past, and that helping with
even middle school homework may be either impossible or a major struggle. Do we
want to lower our expectations when we are far behind the international pack?