The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 28, 2013

Carolyn Tubbs, guest columnist: Political agendas, not schools, are what fail us

By Carolyn Tubbs
Special to The Globe

JOPLIN, Mo. — The hasty rush to judgment by politicians who want fast, sound-bite answers is a misrepresentation of the achievements of American education. Yes, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, I mean you — and your cohorts who are declaring the monumental efforts and achievements of educators to be “failures.”

There are two points to understand in evaluating schools’ accomplishments: 1) the major cause of unsatisfactory achievement and 2) the way we interpret test scores. The tests to see are the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) or the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The major cause of failure to learn and perform satisfactorily on high-stakes tests is poverty, not ineffective teachers, schools or lack of money. Reliable sources conclude this every time. You only have to compare scores in areas of high poverty to scores in middle class and wealthy areas to see that low test scores in impoverished areas happen throughout the United States. A child who has not received medical attention may be sitting in a classroom with a toothache. A child who is unable to see to the front of the room is not going to learn well.

Even worse than those in-class examples are the conditions of a poverty-level household. Studies show poverty-level children often do not receive the most important element — parents’ support and involvement in their child’s education. Parents’ energies are instead spent working two jobs and getting food on the table.

Now, I don’t mean to go all bleeding-heart, insisting on social programs. If a child shows up to school with any of the above, he may learn — but not up to his potential. It’s common sense. Statistics prove this every time. Educators cannot directly impact poverty; it is simply outside their purview.

Twenty-five percent of American children live in poverty — the highest poverty rate in the world compared to other equally industrialized countries. In Finland (which ranks No. 1 in the world on achievement tests), 4 percent of the children live in poverty. In the United States, we educate and test 99 percent of our 15-year-olds, including special education students; China educates and tests 15 percent of its 15-year-olds. The less-capable Chinese students do not advance far enough in school to be in the testing pool. Obviously, we can see the errors in comparing the two countries’ final statistics, since the two tested groups have significant differences. It’s like comparing cutie oranges to grapefruits — on paper we can call them both citrus fruits, but actually, they are different.

Likewise, the United States educates many second-language students and includes them in the statistics. Finland, Germany and other countries do not have “sub groups,” whose scores may very well be below average because they are performing in a second language. These countries have a very homogenous student population, while the United States has students who have striking diversity in background, ethnicity and religion.

Again, I do not mean to slide into an argument about immigration, with all its heatedness, or to give this as an excuse. But, from an educator’s point of view, it’s a fact that when these young people show up at our schools, we are required by law to educate them and to test them.

Breaking down the raw numbers so that the groups being compared are significantly the same is known in “educationese” as disaggregating the numbers. When careful, statistically reliable and valid disaggregation is carried out on comparative international tests, a different picture emerges.

The United States, apples to apples, holds its own in reading and math, compared to other industrialized countries. When the United States gets an apples-to-oranges comparison, without poverty factored in, yes, America does not measure up. The difference is an unbiased, valid interpretation of the statistics, without trying to prove preconceived conclusions. But a warning: Some of these reports are 100 pages or more; it takes persistence to determine details.

Likewise, when compared to our own previous years’ scores, the United States is at an all-time high. We are continually improving ourselves, while educating a rising percentage of diverse students with a range of learning challenges.

Our schools are not “failing.” They continue to improve, despite the hasty, misinterpreted statistical conclusions that are touted by solipsistic politicians who persist in their own agendas.

Caroline Tubbs is a teacher at Carthage High School.