On his Founding Principles blog [principalfoundations.blogspot.com] California educator and entrepreneur Bruce William Smith toys with ranking nations by their school systems. I am not certain if he is serious, or is mocking us school rankers. Nonetheless he presents ranking as entertainment, a parlor game suitable for a warm summer evening, broken into two digestible pieces.
I am going to spoil his ending. He makes Norway number one. I am getting that out of the way because it is a boring country. I would prefer someplace warmer and livelier, maybe Costa Rica, Ghana or Ireland. There must be some way to get them high on the list. The fun is in the way he picks the country, not the choice itself.
Smith dismisses, as he should, the notion of awarding the prize to the country with the highest average test scores. As an American, I am relieved to see that. We can’t win that game. We have too many TV channels and mobile devices and too deep a social bias against people who have high test scores.
Instead, Smith combines what he calls attainment---the number of years of schooling averaged by young adults---with achievement. By achievement he means (contradictions are part of the fun) test scores, but of a special kind. He uses the median score in each country on the Programme for International Student Assessment. The PISA is a freak test that tries not to conform to what 15 year olds in each country have studied, but what they have learned. Then it gives extra credit for politically correct views on the environment. Why not? We’re just playing.
The PISA is not a popular test in America,but we still participate in it. Why? We can’t resist any kind of competition. It is in our pioneer blood. That is why we still engage in hopeless (for us) contests like the World Cup and the Olympic marathon.
Combine attainment and achievement in Smith’s unique way and you get three top countries—New Zealand, Australia and Korea. Smith debunks his own formula at this point as inadequate. In the second of his two posts, he tosses in another parameter. He looks for countries that do the most to get everyone a job. That also is a good measure of a country’s education system, he says.
Norway is in fourth place when Smith considers only attainment and achievement. (The United States isn’t even in the top dozen, which includes Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan and the Netherlands.) To bring it into the top spot, he looks at a measure I have never seen before, the employment rate of former special needs students. In Norway that number is 45 percent, close to number one Switzerland at 52 percent.
The Norwegians keep most of the population in school for a long time. They teach them pretty well. They try hard to make sure everyone is employed. Their goal is “a high general level of education in the entire population” which Smith asserts “they are achieving more than any other nation and is a worthwhile goal to pursue, rather than the highest test scores.”
He says “the Norwegian system intelligently provides a place for everyone, for all children and adults, with their various talents and ability levels, in accordance with a vision of a society ‘where citizens master the art of living together’; this may be contrasted with a society and government of the people by the highly educated for the well placed vested interests, which is what I fear American society has become.”
Score one for Smith. We can play too. Drinks, anyone? Pita chips? Carrots? Let’s make up our own rules as he did and see what country tops our list.