February 10, 2016; U.S. News & World Report, “Data Mine” and Education Week

Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that our public schools are not meeting their responsibility to our children’s futures. Spanning the Bush and Obama presidencies, a common thread has been the setting of a national imperative to improve public education. In his first inaugural address, President Bush shared his view of our public education system: “The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools.” President Obama began the last year of his presidency saying that the nation still needed to “restore the promise of America’s public education, and ensure that American children again lead the world in achievement, creativity and success.”

Policymakers in both administrations and mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Walton family shared a common narrative of the reasons our public schools were failing, which shaped educational policy. For the last two administrations, policy has emerged from a strong belief that the causes of weak schools were to be found within the schools themselves, and that improvement would come when these conditions were eliminated. Ineffective teachers protected by too-powerful unions, they said, led to our children being taught by incompetents. The lack of a strong core curriculum and sufficient metrics to measure student and teacher performance made improvement difficult. And a bureaucratic system that did not unleash the power of the marketplace stifled innovation and improvement limited.

From these beliefs sprung No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, the Common Core curriculum, changes in labor laws, school choice and charter schools, and increased standardized testing.

There were also those who challenged this perspective. For many critics of the prevailing policy direction, race, poverty, and communal disorder were seen as strongly affecting a child’s ability to learn and were forces too powerful to be overcome just through the efforts of schools and teachers, no matter how effective. Insufficient and inequitable school funding hampered the schools asked to teach the most challenging students. They saw “school choice” and the marketplace as the wrong ways to manage public schools; testing and reliance on metrics distorted effective, quality education.

Partisans on either side argue their cases passionately. Of interest to all concerned about the future of American education should be a new study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Low Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How To Help Them Succeed,” which can provide the basis for moving beyond a clash of educational philosophy to a more fact-based foundation for effective policymaking.

The report, written by Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, and Daniel Salinas, analyzed the results of the latest (2012) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which gathers educational performance data in 64 countries. Interestingly, this is a study whose results have been seen as demonstrating how American schools perform poorly and need improvement.

Underlying the study is OECD’s recognition that “students who are low performers at age 15 are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attain better-paying and more-rewarding jobs. When a large share of the population lacks basic skills, a country’s long-term economic growth is compromised.” Identifying causative factors for poor performance was recognized as essential to effectively improving our schools.

A formula for improving school performance must recognize the actual forces that affect educational outcomes and the interplay of in-school and external events on student outcomes:

Poor performance is not the result of any single risk factor, but rather of a combination and accumulation of various barriers and disadvantages that affect students throughout their lives. On average across OECD countries, the probability of low performance…is higher for students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, girls, had an immigrant background, speak a different language at home from the language of instruction, live in single- parent families, attend schools in rural areas, have not attended pre-primary school (or had attended for a year or less), had repeated a grade and also for students enrolled in vocational programs or schools. In the United States, the likelihood of low performance in mathematics is higher for students who are socio-economically disadvantaged and had repeated a grade.

Looking at only the experience of U.S. students, the study found that the “socio-economically disadvantaged student is almost 6 times more likely to be a low performer than an advantaged student, after accounting for demographic and education background factors. Some 41 percent of disadvantaged students in the United States were low performers in mathematics in 2012, while only 9 percent of advantaged students were. Students who had repeated a grade in the United States were almost four times as likely to be low performers in mathematics (53 percent of them were low performers) as students who had never repeated a grade (20 percent of them were low performers) […] Students…are less likely to be low performers in schools where teachers are more supportive and have higher morale, and also where there are fewer teacher shortages and more creative extracurricular activities available for students.”

The OECD analysis suggests that the consensus U.S. educational policymakers and school reformers has been too narrow in ignoring important societal factors. We have spent many years and billions of dollars implementing policies that have in most cases not directly responded to important, determinative issues. Critical factors outside the direct school environment, such as economic status, parental success, and native language, have not been directly addressed. (It should be noted that throughout the report, the researchers use the term “socioeconomic disadvantage” more in reference to home environment, parental education, and parents’ career success than to income.) Rather than strengthening the role of the teacher, much of the focus has cast teachers as the root cause of poor school performance and vilified the teaching profession.

Ensuring equitable school funding has not been front and center for policymakers, but maybe it needs to be. Education Week noted, “The OECD also found that while educational resources were needed to reduce a country’s pool of low-performing students, the amount of per-pupil spending in each country was not as closely associated with performance as how equitably countries spent the money they did have.”

The lack of focus on the important issues identified by OECD may explain why despite years of effort and billions of dollars spent, little progress can be seen. According to Laura Camera, writing for U.S. News and World Report, the PISA data shows that “the share of low performers in math and in reading in the U.S. has not changed since the 2003 PISA test, but the share of low performers in science decreased by about 6 percentage points between 2000 and 2012. […] Thirty-seven percent of 15-year-old students in the country attend schools where 30 percent or more of students are low performers in math. About 12 percent attend schools where half or more of students are low performers in math.”

The American public sees the lack of progress despite the great investment. A recent Gallup poll shows that more than half the population remains dissatisfied with the quality of K-12 education. Only 31 percent have complete confidence in our public education system.

Is education just another area where those making policy see what one believes to be true as more important than what is known? Shouldn’t educational policy be an area where policymakers learn from experience and use good data to guide our future direction? If we believe that a strong education is critical to our future, can we really afford for our political leaders to be less than A-students?—Martin Levine