We get upset when we note that American children do not perform as well on some tests as some children in other countries. More often than not, our competitive drives influence our judgment, leading us to believe that American children should perform as well or better on these comparative tests.
Tests should be instruments we use to measure the status of something. Schools test to measure student progress and the effectiveness of their teaching in the belief that such teaching and measurement will predict student success as indicated by improved knowledge and skills, graduation, further higher education or to identify student academic problems. In any school system, reasonable testing is important for these reasons. Yet there is a downside that becomes evident when we use test results to compare our children with foreign students.
Should American children perform better on tests that compare them to foreign students? Does performance on these comparative tests predict success as an individual or as a nation? Further, does the fact that our children perform worse on some tests identify a problem?
Well, let's see if it does by looking at what a problem is. First, a problem is identified by defining the difference between the "is" and the "should be." Next, once we have defined the difference, we must identify the change that caused the difference. If there is no change, there is no problem.
Yet quite often we ignore obvious differences and blame the target of our bias, in this case the school system. We hear the critics claim that American children should perform as well or better on tests that compare them with foreign students, and, therefore, our children are not as well educated as some foreign children. Could it be that we have only failed to adequately define the "should be" part of the equation and to identify the change that caused the problem? Or does a "should be" even exist? Is there really a problem?
In the Jan. 9, 2006 issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria researched this subject throughout Asia. He asked the minister of education for Singapore, the No.1 country in science and math rankings, how he "explained the fact that even though Singapore's students do so brilliantly on tests, when you look at these same students 10 or 20 years later, few of them are worldbeaters any more. Singapore has few truly top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives or academics. American kids test much worse in fourth and eighth grades, but seem to do better later in life and in the real world. Why?"
In response, the minister used the word "meritocracy," meaning America assigns social status based upon "merit", i.e., competition, talent, formal education and competence.
America has a "talent" meritrocracy, whereas Singapore has an exam or test meritocracy. He went on to say that "there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well, like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority."
Voila! These are the characteristics taught by the American family, and are the key to our superior personal and national performance and to our success as a culture. Successful children emerge from families that engender these characteristics. In short, the difference is the American family and the American culture, not the American school system. Schools test for characteristics taught by the schools, not those taught by the family.
Thus the conclusion should be that those characteristics that best predict success are not taught in schools, but taught in the family. Therefore, in that there is no change, the difference is found in the distinctions between American families and those with whom we are compared. This conclusion does not depreciate the American school system. Obviously, critical basic skills are taught at the primary level and more specialized subject matter at high schools and colleges. But none of these skills are worth a hill of beans without the American family and the unique culture within which it is immersed.
It took the Singapore minister of education to tell us why we are still the most productive culture on the face of the globe. That is - there is no difference between our "is" and our "should be." For us, they are the same (we "should be" and we "are.") To understand this, we must set aside the statistics that predict national failure based upon comparing apples and oranges, and understand that American families produce children that are favorably different from those children against whom we compare ourselves. This is the difference that accounts for our personal and national success.
• Dan Mooney is a retired, 32 -year Carson City resident. His e-mail address is Nevada4@aol.com.