Putting Some Straight Talk Into Obama's Education Speech

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we've let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us. . . . What's at stake is nothing less than the American dream."

With those words, President Obama last week rang this generation's alarm bell about the state of public education. Since the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" warned of economic peril because of troubles in education, each president has voiced concerns about the failings of schools. Yet advocates of public schools say that educators often haven't gotten the credit they deserve when the economy does well. And they note that speechwriters often oversimplify when they pluck a fact out of a long, nuanced study to help a politician make a rhetorical point. Here is a look at some things Obama said in his speech and the context behind the statements.

-- Valerie Strauss


"In eighth-grade math, we've fallen to ninth place."

"Singapore's middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one."

"We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. . . . Our c hildren spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy."

"The solution to low test scores is . . . standards like those in Massachusetts, where eighth-graders are now tying for first -- first -- in the world in science."

Obama was talking about TIMSS, or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, one of two international assessments of students over which many educators fret. They do so because countries such as Singapore score higher than the United States.

TIMSS is administered every four years to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students in participating nations.

In the 2007 TIMSS, the most recent, U.S. eighth-graders did place ninth in math out of almost 50 countries. But that was actually an improvement over the previous TIMSS, in 2003, when the United States placed 15th.

As for Obama's comment about South Korean students spending more time in class, in fact some U.S. students do, too. Many schools have expanded their school day and school year in recent years. Some have shown better student achievement; some haven't and have returned to the more traditional calendar.

The bottom line: Research on time and length of school day or year reveals that time alone will not increase student achievement or raise standardized test scores -- and that increasing class time is not a necessary change to accomplish those things.

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