Maybe you read about the recent international tests in reading, math and science. If so, you might have read that U.S. students didn’t stack up so well next to the rest of the world - another “proof” our schools are failing. If so, you were steered wrong. The truth is, our students did very well in world rankings.

So why did so many news outlets put a negative spin on our test scores? More on that later. First, let’s look at the results.

Let’s start with reading. We all “know” our children are terrible readers, right? That’s what we have been hearing from critics of our public schools for decades. Well, we came in 6th in reading worldwide, just a few points below the top five countries.


Thirteen western European countries scored below our students in reading. Germany, for instance, an economic powerhouse known for its well educated population, came in 17th, 11 spots below our students. Norway came in 30th.

U.S. students scored a bit lower in math and science than in reading -- around 9th place in both subjects -- but that still put us well ahead of a dozen western European countries.

I know some people aren’t happy unless they can shout “We’re number one!” and they’ll think our less-than-top scores prove how lousy our schools are. But coming in 6th and 9th place on the world stage is hardly a condemnation of our schools, especially when you understand how much of what goes on in schools can’t be measured by standardized testing.

Singapore had the highest overall scores in the world. (Other Asian nations occupied some of the other top spots.) So it may seem surprising that Singapore’s Minister of Education isn’t overly impressed with his students’ performance. “There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well,” he says, “like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.” That helps explain why educators from the highest scoring Asian nations make frequent visits to U.S. schools. They want to learn how to teach their students to be more creative and entrepreneurial - like Americans.

Another problem with assigning a single score to the U.S. is that we’re a big country with large regional differences in student achievement. Massachusetts, for instance, with a population as large as many countries, had the second highest score in 8th grade science in the world. In 4th grade reading, Florida scored 2nd in the world. Scores like those don’t come from failing schools.

So why has our strong performance on international tests been interpreted by so many as another indication our schools are failing? The answer is, we have a cottage industry of conservative “education reformers” who have been demonizing our public schools since the 1980s. They’ve taken problems with our public schools - things we all know can and should be better - and exaggerated them until they look like insurmountable obstacles. Our schools are so bad, these “reformers” want us to believe, they’re beyond saving; our only reasonable option is to toss the whole thing out and start over by privatizing education. Translation:

Let’s replace traditional schools with charter schools and private school vouchers. To make their case, they spin every new bit of information, including our successes in the most recent international tests, as a further sign of school failure. Unfortunately, some members of the media are taken in.

Obviously, our schools aren’t everything they should be, but they’re not the abject failures conservatives with a privatization agenda want us to believe. And for all their cheerleading for their solution - More charters! More vouchers! - those forms of education haven’t been any more successful than traditional public schools. We need to put greater efforts into our efforts to improve the weakest parts of our education system - that means more research, innovation and, yes, money - not toss out what’s working and start over.

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