Apples and Oranges Nonsense

A lot of wrong, misleading, and irrelevant things are said about school system reform. When advocates of transformational change are guilty it is an honest mistake. Because such mistakes can be costly, I have highlighted many of them in previous blog posts, and many more in my book, The School Choice Wars. When apologist-advocates of the dreadful status quo say wrong, misleading, and irrelevant things, it is often shameful and shameless. A previous blog post, this post, and the March 11 post, describe examples.

In a recent article for Education Week, Michael A. Rebell and Jessica R. Wolf of Columbia University’s Campaign for Educational Equity use the 2012 Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) results to claim the U.S. school system works fine; that student poverty is the reason the system is low-performing compared to other countries. Before I describe the ‘Apples and Oranges’ nonsense underlying their claim, I want to remind you of two things:

  • At the school system level, global best is not great.  There are some high-performing schools, but no high-performing countries.
  • The low performance of middle and upper class area schools is well-documented.

Rebell and Wolf point out that,            

U.S. schools with fewer than 25 percent of their students living in poverty rank first in the world (PISA) among advanced industrial countries.

They compared our best school outcomes to country (school system-wide) averages; shameful and maybe shameless!?!?!? Apples to apples comparison is schools vs. schools, or countries vs. countries. We know from a Jay Greene and Josh McGee study that,

Even the most elite U.S. suburban school districts often produce results that are mediocre when compared with those of our international peers.

The Rebell-Wolf PISA data discovery is additional evidence, like Hanushek’s finding that replacing our 5-8% worst teachers with average teachers would make U.S. K-12 outcomes among the world’s best, and the modest (non-trivial, but not big) differences between the PISA scores of the top-ranked countries and the middle of the pack, is that the best in the world is not that great. Rebell and Wolf argue that just improving students — leaving the system as is — will make us #1. But we know the U.S. school system can be improved a lot!!

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John Merrifield

John D. Merrifield is a Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author of four books, including The School Choice Wars, School Choices and Parental Choice as an Education Reform Catalyst: Global Lessons. Dr. Merrifield is the Editor of the Journal of School Choice. He has also written 45 articles published in peer-reviewed journals and several book chapters in his primary teaching and research fields of education economics, urban and regional economics, environmental and natural resource economics, and public finance.
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Comments (13)

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  1. VN says:

    “Even the most elite U.S. suburban school districts often produce results that are mediocre when compared with those of our international peers.”

    So true. Students learning less and less these days.

    • Tiggie says:

      The system only secures the most talented students. Mediocre ones are not a part of the game.

  2. Felton says:

    Basically speaking, the education system in the U.S. largely inspires student’s potential. Students’ academic performance reflects the extend to which he or she studies.

    • Steve says:

      That’s not entirely true. No matter how much a student studies, if they’re taught the subject matter in a way that doesn’t mesh with their learning ability they won’t grasp the material. To assume that students’ level of education directly reflects their level of studying places the burden of educating students on students. That seems a little unfair.

      • Tiggie says:

        Well, teaching students in accordance with their aptitude sounds reasonable. However, the curriculum does provide a wide range of subjects. Students have sufficient options to choose based on their interests and abilities. If someone is addicted to video games, drugs, or other “ridiculous” things, then educational reform can rescue his or her…

  3. Mary says:

    So students are the problem, according to Rebell and Wolf? Kind of sounds like blaming the victims to me.

  4. Ava says:

    “There are some high-performing schools, but no high-performing countries”

    That’s sad. I wonder why.

    • Mary says:

      Because we try to make the same thing work in every school for every child, and it won’t. We need to get better about letting parents choose the route for their child.

  5. John Merrifield says:

    Several of the comments reflect problematic one-dimensional thinking. For example, what does “premier school” mean? Unless one-size-can-fit all, any given school cannot be “premier” generally, only premier for some. ‘Great for whom’ is the reason why choice and diverse schooling options are needed.