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A Contrarian View of "Race to Nowhere"

As a long-time subscriber to The Wall Street Journal, I know before reading its editorials and essays about public schools what to expect. "Do American Students Study Too Hard?" (Apr. 30) by James Freeman, assistant editor of the editorial page, was no exception.

Freeman uses "Race to Nowhere," which was released in Sept. 2010 by first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, as a springboard to comment on what he says is the wholesale failure of public education. Contrary to the documentary's argument that students in this country are overwhelmed by stress caused by pressure from their parents to get good grades, participate in a host of extracurricular activities and excel on the SAT, he asserts that students aren't working as hard as Abeles believes.

Freeman offers as evidence two intuitively appealing facts: almost half of incoming freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley have to take remedial courses, and students score poorly on international tests. As he puts it: "If they work so hard, how do they learn so little?" It's a question that I hear frequently from those I meet at social affairs. But it's a little like asking a husband when he stopped beating his wife because both questions carry with them a presumption of guilt.

Let's take the second question first since it is seen as the greater threat to the future of this country. Freeman frames the issue this way: "But of course American kids were performing poorly on international tests long before Mr. Bush was inaugurated." Freeman looks to Jeanne Allen, who heads the Center for Education Reform, for an explanation: students are not memorizing enough facts. You can't develop problem-solving skills without a base of knowledge. There's truth to this view, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the tests in question are actually measuring.

The fact is that the only way to draw valid inferences about test results is to consider the scores of students from schools in one country with the scores of students from schools in other countries having comparable demographics. Take the latest Program for International Student Assessment. Schools in the U.S. with less than a 10 percent poverty rate posted a PISA score of 551. When this score is compared with ten countries having similar poverty numbers, the U.S. ranked No. 1. Even when the poverty rate is as high as 25 percent, the U.S. came in at 527, still placing it No. 1.

Clearly, the blanket statement of "learning so little" is more nuanced than Freeman acknowledges. He then compounds his error by his selective amnesia. If he is going to use rankings to try to make his case, what about UNICEF's report showing the U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world? It's a vital statistic that can't be ignored.

Even more important, however, is the entire issue of whether rankings on tests of international competition are nearly as significant as Freeman wants readers to believe. Several years ago, Newsweek published an interview with Singapore's Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Although Singapore students excel on such math and science tests, American students do better in the real world. "We both have meritocracies," he explained. "Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition."

What about Freeman's first point about the need for remedial education at UC Berkeley? It's extremely troubling to learn that even at the flagship campus of the UC system so many students require remediation. But part of the problem is the lack of K-12 alignment with institutions of higher education. At least that's what the College Board reported ("Percentage of Students in Remedial Classes in College"). This explanation was supported by a 2007 ACT National Curriculum Survey of college professors. It found that professors want students with stronger skills in specific areas, while high schools typically stress a broad range of topics. That's why it's so important for college faculty and high school teachers to work together.

Whether "Race to Nowhere" will get the same attention that "Waiting for Superman" did is highly unlikely. Although neither is objective, the latter unfortunately reinforces the views of a growing number of taxpayers - especially those who read The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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