Monday, April 27, 2009

Global Achievement Comparisons

As I've noted before, it is difficult to justify comparing the education systems of different countries because there are countless variables and intangibles that cannot be contrasted to any truly evaluative conclusion. For example, in the beginning of Wagner's Global Achievement Gap, he notes various statistics designed to show how poorly America is doing. For example, he points out that the US high school graduation of rate of 70% trails many countries, such as Denmark which graduates 96%. However, countries such as Denmark only have compulsory education until the age of sixteen. The US allows dropouts at sixteen but graduation is generally two years later. Thus, if the US switched graduation to sixteen, the rate may be as high as others. He argues "only 1/3 of US high school students graduate ready for college," yet the percentage of the population holding bachelors degrees is about 30%, so perhaps that is all that is necessary, or all that the market will bare. Clearly, Wagner is using statistics in absence of any truly meaningful context.

Later, he attempts to provide context by citing a conversation with Christy Pedra, the CEO of Siemens Hearing Instruments. Pedra argues that "questioning techniques" are a major component of her success in her job. She criticizes the public education of her kids - at a top school in Massachusetts - because "They're spending too much time getting kids ready to take [state tests]. And they're measuring the wrong things." Pedra believes that training students to become scientists is about the ability to explore and asking the right questions. She believes it's not about "how much they can retain." However, that's only half the issue. It's about both retention of core knowledge, and using that knowledge to ask even more, or even better, questions. This has been well documented, and blogged about, by Dan Willingham whose book Why Don't Students Like School offers insight into the importance of knowledge prior to and as a component of learning . Willingham's research in cognitive science explains how important "how much they can retain" is in the brain accessing new information.

Clearly, Pedra and Wagner have an understanding that ignores much we know about learning and education. Pedra criticizes the education of her kids, yet I assume a similar education allowed her to rise to the level of CEO. Somewhere, despite standardized testing, she learned to apply those questioning techniques integral to her job. Additionally, I would assume she wants her children to be well prepared for the ACT/SAT which are the gateways to college whether she likes the focus on skills and knowledge or not. Pedra and Wagner make good points, though their primary focus is too narrow and removed from the larger school of cognitive science and learning.


Dennis Fermoyle said...

Michael, I think you have great stuff, and I think you'd get more comments if you were dumber, like me. Your posts are so thorough and well thought out that it's tough to argue with or add to. I completely agree with you about the importance of knowledge. When I was getting my Masters, the classes were pooh-poohing that, and pushing the creative thinking. How can you think creatively if you don't know anything?

mazenko said...

Thanks so much for the compliments, Dennis. Your readership means a lot to me, and I learn much from the discussions on your site - they inevitably influence my content.