China scored an international coup without firing a shot yesterday when their students from Shanghai came out on top in all three categories of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)--reading, science, and math. American students scored way down in the average ranks, where we have ranked for years, behind a lot of countries that used to be considered "developing."
Well, I don't need to tell you that fur flew among standardized testing afficionados and self-styled school reformers who worked themselves into a frenzy. The New York Times quoted an array of reactors who were stunned by this performance, especially the Secretary of Education, who said it was our "wake-up call." He's right, we ARE being out-educated on every front, but I, for one, am very tired of hearing Secy. Duncan and everyone else on the East Coast talk about "closing the gap" in test scores as if that were some kind of reality measure, and blaming teachers for this national failing.
There's a deeper and bigger picture in this story: First, consider a rapidly industrializing and globally competing China, determined to show well on every measure; their rise is not unlike the Russian education juggernaut of mid-20th century during the Sputnik era when we were all pushed, bribed, and entreated to become scientists. Somehow American scientific progress raced on without me, producing moon landings and other coups. But we've been there, done that--both industrialization and scientific competition. Haven't we already won both of those races?
That's why I'm skeptical about this national over-reaction to China's test scores. It's certainly not the moment to go running back into the past but rather a moment to change the game! The American people are certainly not going to stand by while the "reformers" further homogenize schools or force longer hours or adherence to strict formulae. That kind of thinking is directly counter to what We the People believe schools ought to be.
Check this out: We really believe in our deepest values--independence, self-determination, progress, et al., and we care about individual people. If we really want to move forward as a nation, we need to move up to the next step in this evolution of democracy: We need to create a public school structure that emulates those concepts and provides the nurturance, coaching, and creativity to set American kids on fire about learning. I can't stand to watch any more hysteria about the symptoms of decay (drop-outs, drugs, truancy, discipline, suicides even), when we could be examining the CORE BELIEFS we share and revitalizing our public education system in that image.
New Vision for Schools is the new game in town, and we're the ones who have to break that sound barrier, too. The next step to global leadership--especially for the highly diversified population of U.S. schools--is to demonstrate that all children have inestimable gifts by designing a public education system that helps teachers and parents bring those seeds of greatness to life. That means we have to be done with haves vs. have-nots. We have to be done with intolerance. We have to be done with dividing the good test-takers from those who just don't want to play.
Here's the kicker: School reform is NOT a numbers game. It's a people game. It's a game that is played by the new rules of cooperation, collaboration, and synergy. I know, what a concept! It's only what everyone inside schools and everyone outside schools have been saying all along, but somehow we can't hear each other. People! Let's talk to each other and get something worthwhile going. That's the best investment we will ever make in both a better world and our own economic future--and you can take that to the bank!