Our Schools vs. Theirs: Averages That Hide The True Extremes


David Berliner


Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201


January 28, 2001




Our Schools vs. Theirs:Averages That Hide The True Extremes

By David Berliner

Not many weeks ago, theTIMSS-R data were released. That's edu-speak for the Third InternationalMathematics and Science Study-Repeat. The United States came out about averageamong the 38 competing nations whose eighth-graders took the tests, rankingonly 19th in mathematics and 18th in science. In the United States, that isunacceptable. So the alarm -- "The sky is falling!" -- was soundedacross our land, just as it was five years previously when the original TIMSSwas reported.

Prestigious leaders ofgovernment and industry are once again claiming that American students can'tcompete in the new economy; once again, they are predicting economic ruin. Ournew president believes these Jeremiahs and told us last week how he will saveAmerica's failing public schools. But President Bush apparently doesn't understandhistory or data.

For a history lesson, letus recall Adm. Hyman Rickover, developer of our nuclear navy, and formerpresident Ronald Reagan. Public school failure was their theme, too, thoughthey were not alone and were joined by many Democrats.

But just in case nobodynoticed, Rickover's lazy and unfit students of the 1950s, students whosupposedly couldn't read or think and were doomed to lose the arms race, noware in charge of most of the nation's important government agencies andcorporations. Those 1950s dum-dums haven't done too badly in terms of nationaldefense, economic productivity or positioning America for a bright future.

And Reagan's indictment ofour schools as responsible for making us "A Nation at Risk" now seemslaughable. Instead, we have built the world's strongest economy. Americanworkers in manufacturing, service and agriculture attain the highest rates ofproductivity in the world. These achievements are the results of the creativityand work ethic of Reagan's hordes of mediocre school children, spawned byRickover's inadequate parents! Enough. The sky is not falling on America.

Data from the TIMSS-R toldus something easily predicted: Large governmental and corporate bureaucraciesdo not change rapidly. The original TIMSS informed us that American fourth- andeighth-graders scored at about the same level as those in 41 other nations, butwell below some Asian nations in math and science. The repeat of TIMSS showedthe same trend. Since the United States has 15,000 or more school districts,with 15,000 funding formulas, and 15,000 curriculum committees and schoolboards, it should have been obvious that change would not occur quickly.Because our nation's public schools are run by local authorities, it was wastedeffort to repeat TIMSS so soon after the 1995 studies.

Furthermore, TIMSS-Rconfirms a point many of us have long believed: Not all our schools shouldchange. Despite the doomsayers, some of our schools are doing fine. The U.S.average masks the scores of students from terrific public schools and hides thescores of students attending shamefully inadequate schools.

Let's take Illinois as anexample. Along Lake Michigan, north of Chicago, are 20 public school districtsserving predominantly wealthy suburban families. They gained permission tocompete in TIMSS as a separate nation. Statistically, these public schoolstudents are on a par with the top scorers internationally in mathematics andscience. Improving public schools where students are doing this well would bedifficult. And this kind of spectacular performance is overlooked by those whoclaim that our schools are not working -- the result of looking only at averageU.S. achievement.

Now let us focus onsouthern Illinois, where East St. Louis is located. For decades, this communityhas been served by dismal schools -- an embarrassment to a nation as rich asours. Yet any good, random sample of U.S. schools for any internationalassessments includes both kinds of districts, those similar to East St. Louisand those that resemble the North Shore of Chicago. Put them together and youhide important distinctions between schools in different communities.

The same sorts ofdistinctions exist among the states, as well, when you separate out thestatistics. In TIMSS, at the eighth-grade level among the 41 nations, 32nations statistically outscored Louisiana in mathematics. Worse, 36 nationsoutscored the District of Columbia. But only six nations in the world beat Iowaand Nebraska in mathematics. In science, 26 nations outperformed Mississippi,and 37 nations beat the District. But only one nation, Singapore, scored aboveColorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana,Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

So which America are wetalking about? The District, or the 14 states that placed second in the world?The moral is clear: Average scores mislead completely in a country asheterogeneous as ours. We have many excellent public schools, and many that arenot nearly as good. Those who want to undermine our public schools oftencondemn the whole system rather than face the inequities within it. They shouldfocus their attention instead on rescuing the underfunded and ill-equippedschools that are failing children in our poorest neighborhoods.

Do we know where we havefailing schools? You bet we do! The TIMSS-R tells us just what is happening. Inscience, for the items common to both the TIMSS and the TIMSS-R, the scores ofwhite students in the United States were exceeded by only three other nations.But black American school children were beaten by every single nation, andHispanic kids were beaten by all but two nations. A similar pattern was true ofmathematics scores.

So, are American schoolsfailing or is America failing to educate some of its children? It seems obviousthat what needs to be addressed is the wide variation in the achievements ofU.S. schools, districts and states. Public educational systems are denyingquality education to some American citizens, and these are usually poorchildren, often minorities. Public schools still succeed amazingly well forchildren in neighborhoods where livable wages are earned, decent housing andhealth care are available, and crime and drug abuse are not everyday problems.

When the TIMSS-R data forscience were released last month, the news media and public school criticsmissed something important. The highest-achieving nation in the world exceedsthe United States -- even when we're looking at the average score across thenation -- by getting exactly four more items out of 48 right. This is not thekind of huge difference between nations that will make the sky fall on America!

In mathematics, we did notdo as well: Students from Singapore, the leading nation, got an average of 40of the 48 items right. Even though they scored above average, American studentsgot only 30 items correct. But at least one reason for that is evident from theTIMSS-R report. In the United States, only 41 percent of math teachers holdmath degrees. The average among other countries is 71 percent. Perhaps, insteadof condemning public education on the basis of these average scores, unhappycitizens should advocate paying teachers enough money so we can attractmathematicians and scientists to public school classrooms.

It is unfortunate but truethat the chances of getting a fully certified teacher in a given subject mattervaries according to where you live. One large suburban district near me, inPhoenix, hires no teachers without full certification. But in Arizona's innercities and rural areas, well over half of math and science teachers do not holdeither a major or a minor in math or science, and large percentages of theteachers hold emergency certificates, which means they are not fully trainedand receive temporary certification only in response to a shortage in teachers.

The true message of theTIMSS-R and other international assessments is that the United States will notimprove in international standings until our terrible inequalities are fixed.The schools that serve our poorest children are not working well, but lesscriticism of those schools and more help for the neighborhoods and familiesthey serve are in order. And without the financing to recruit and retainqualified teachers for all America's children, the most wonderful curriculums,designed to meet the highest standards, will fail. The new president's testingand accountability programs won't change these realities at all.

David Berliner is theRegents' Professor and dean of Arizona State University's college of education.