Thursday, July 20, 2006

Public vs. Private Schools: Two Opinions

In shooting for the middle in a July 19 NYTimes editorial "Public vs. Private Schools" the author misses and aims right of fully 'informed.' The author appropriately ridicules the demagogic NEA message that public schools are "doing an outstanding job." But in the author's walkabout to be moderate he or she skips over the notion that some schools are excellent, e.g. "The public, private, charter and religious realms all contain schools that range from good to not so good to downright horrendous," and wanders into truthiness with the statement "the country should stay focused on the overarching problem: on average, American school children are performing at mediocre levels in reading...." PISA does not support this author's notion that American children perform at mediocre levels in reading.

For those unaware, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among participating countries to measure preparation of15-year-olds. PISA administers tests and background questionnaires to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each participating country to assess three forms of literacy: reading, mathematical and scientific. The assessments focus on how well students apply knowledge and skills to tasks that are relevant to their future life, rather than on the memorization of subject matter knowledge.

On these PISA assessments the United States is competitive when compared to other countries. PISA reports 5 proficiency levels for its literacy tests. Only 5 other countries have more students scoring in the top level of proficiency than does the United States. The U.S. fairs reasonably well in proficiency levels 2 and 3 compared to other OECD countries as well. The U.S. ranking of 16 out of 41 ranked countires doesn't sound mediocre. It does suggest room for improvement, especially at the bottom.

The editorial is right to suggest that we must stay focused on the problem of achievement, and we should try to avoid the hapless yet necessarily political arguments over what type of school best serves students (we must have and hear and carefully consider arguments when we try to impose a type of schooling on every child). The editorial is wrong to suggest that what we do in this country is mediocre. Schooling in the U.S. is not mediocre. Our American talents are not mediocre. What is mediocre however, is how we allow too many people, too many children, to go to mediocre and in some cases, to quote the editorial, "downright horrendous" schools. Schools can help to redress inequality. We must help our schools help us.

The instinct for positivity is a place to begin.


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