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The Iceberg Effect: A Reply to James Harvey and Charles Fowler

On October 21, Education Week published a response from James Harvey and Charles Fowler to a blog I wrote about their report, The Iceberg Effect, in which I held up that report as an example of many reports that attempt to discredit international comparisons of student achievement that show the United States performing poorly relative to other nations. Failing that, these reports then attempt to show that if our students do perform poorly, our schools are not responsible.  It's the fault, they say, of factors that have nothing to do with the actions of American educators or our schools.  If that is true, of course, one can only conclude that there are no changes our schools and educators could make that would improve outcomes for our students and so they don't have to change what they are doing or how they do it.  It is that formulation of the problem and that conclusion to which I object.

It stretches credulity to say that our schools have no responsibility for the poor performance of our students.  If our schools have no responsibility for the academic performance of our students, what, exactly, are they responsible for?  To get to that conclusion, the authors have to destroy the credibility of the measures on which U.S. performance looks bad.  Then, just to be sure, the critic must show that, if the reader still harbors some doubt about the superlative performance of our students, the blame for low performance should not fall on the schools. 

So Harvey and Fowler supply a list of American scholars who have attacked the international comparative assessments of student performance on methodological grounds.  Harvey and Fowler know, of course, that I can easily come up with a list of other equally reputable scholars who are strong supporters of those comparative assessments. It would be astonishing if there were no controversy about this research, given the consequential nature of the findings for the countries that participate.  It is important to point out, in this context, that all the periodic international comparative studies of student achievement that have been done have largely confirmed each other's findings.  There are none that would place the United States among the top countries in student achievement and equity.

The most devastating of these studies was the most recent PIAAC study from the OECD, which found that the millennials in the American workforce placed nearly last when compared to the millennials in the workforces of all the other countries studied in reading, mathematics and problem solving.  Harvey and Fowler dismiss this study as so methodologically flawed that it was not even worth mentioning in their report.  Their critique rests on alleged low response rates and the fact that the responses they got included immigrant workers in the United States but excluded immigrants in most of the countries being compared to the U.S.  But, if you look a little closer you will see that the OECD had set a rather unrealistic response rate target of 70 percent.  When they predictably did not get it in most of the countries they surveyed, they subjected the data they got to a battery of statistical tests to show that the samples were not biased.  The authors of this critique simply ignored that fact.  Given the data sets available, it is not surprising that the immigrants were not fully accounted for, but, if they had been, the results would have been changed for other countries by no more than 2.8 percent, which would not have changed the U.S.'s ranking.  So, yes, there were methodological problems, but they were corrected where that was possible and where they were not, the remaining difference was so small as not to matter.  This is not a trivial point, because the argument that Harvey and Fowler make falls apart when you realize that, over the last 40 years, the United States has gone from having the best educated workforce in the industrialized world to having one of the worst.

Basically, though, Harvey and Fowler, argue that our schools are not responsible for whatever deficiencies their graduates exhibit because of our high rates of child poverty, the levels of violence we see in this country and the lack of support for families with young children.  These are serious issues, and they are issues we have to address, but we cannot use them as excuses for failing to change our schools in the ways that the countries outperforming us have changed theirs. 

Here's why.  Several of the countries now greatly outperforming us were economic basket cases 40 or 50 years ago, with levels of poverty vastly exceeding anything this country has ever seen.  Some of them had levels of violence that we have never seen.  They went to work on them and they overcame them.  But they also greatly changed their schools.  They thought that school performance had to change greatly while at the same time understanding that they also had to change non-school policies and practices if the schools were ever to live up to their expectations.  That is just what we have to do, too.

I can understand why our schools and many policy analysts and academics feel besieged these days.  I, too, think it is unfair for so many outside the schools to lay all the problems of the schools at the feet of professional educators.  And I, too, am outraged at those who think that tough-minded test-based accountability is the route to redemption for our schools. 

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Many of the people associated with The Iceberg Effect are friends, people whose values and work I admire.  Harvey and Fowler say they are very comfortable with our organization's education reform proposals.  So why go out of my way to take issue with their report when there are so many truly wrongheaded reports and proposals abroad in the land?

I decided to write about The Iceberg Effect because our education debate seems to be polarized between those who would hold our teachers, school administrators and unions responsible for the poor performance of our students and the teachers, school administrators and unions who would hold everyone but themselves responsible.  

If it is the professional educators—former Secretary of Education William Bennet used the derisive term "the Blob"—then the thing to do is to circumvent them with market mechanisms, blow them up with "disruptive change" and get rid of the worst of them with tough-minded accountability systems.  If it is the parents and the society at large who are to blame, then the schools do not have to change.  Everyone but the schools needs to change.

What the experience of the countries with the most successful education systems shows is that the problem is not the professional educators or their opponents.  It is the design of our education system, invented a century ago for a society and industrial economy that has long since died away.  Our professional educators will have to redesign it.  It is they who have the professional knowledge needed to redesign it and it is they who will need to make the new design work.  But they will be in no mood to do that as long as they are told by people who think of themselves as defending them that our education system does not need to be redesigned.

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