South Korea’s Diane Ravitch, test prep, and inequality

There has been extensive debate about the reasons for the poor educational performance of American students in comparison to students in other countries, particularly in Finland and South Korea. Both of these countries get very high marks on the internationally-benchmarked PISA, and educators in the United States are looking for ways to emulate this achievement. But how?

One novel approach (reminiscent of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”) seems unlikely to gain much traction, but a less innovative idea just might be catching on. One practice that many of the high-performing Asian countries have in common is heavy emphasis on rote memorization and test prep. In China, Singapore, and Korea in particular, schools have really emphasized test preparation, which often means drilling and memorization, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum.

American schools, particularly those that serve populations with higher rates of poverty, already emphasize memorization to a severe extent. Despite complaints from parents, teachers, and myriad others, schools in New York City and elsewhere continue to be judged by the test scores of their students. There is also a push to evaluate teachers based in part on student performance on standardized tests.

This all serves as prelude to this story from Ed Week, published over the weekend. A senior South Korean minister recently advised the U.S. not to follow that country’s model for success on tests too closely.

Just as the U.S. is moving to a more test-centered approach to public education, the highest performing countries (as measured by…tests) are moving in the opposite direction.  Like Diane Ravitch, Byong Man Ahn, the former minister of education, science, and technology in South Korea, has rejected his former policy stance in favor of testing and the narrowing of curriculum to meet the demands of these tests. Unlike Ravitch, his shift seems to be indicative of a larger movement in his country to alter the education system.

South Korean officials have taken several steps to try to de-emphasize exams, Mr. Ahn said. The government, in cooperation with universities, is retooling college entrance procedures to encourage institutions to judge applicants on having diverse talents and interests, a movement that Mr. Ahn said is “gaining momentum.”

And throughout the school system, South Korea is seeking to reduce the number of required courses and academic material students are expected to cover, and give them more choice over their academic studies, he said.

Just astonishing. These are desperately needed reforms, both here in the states and in Korea. Good for them for moving on this, and shame on American leaders for taking an opposite track. Of course, the best schools in the U.S. have made many of these shifts already. The schools attended by scions of the wealthy and privileged support and allow the whole child to flourish, while these schools are rare for children in poverty. I wonder why…

And we continue to hear questions about how to improve this country’s test performance, particularly on international exams like PISA and TIMSS. The truth is, American students in general may have scored worse than some other countries, but this presents an incomplete picture of the results. Schools that serve very few poor students beat the mark for all of the countries ahead of us on PISA. Remember that “modest proposal” to export poor kids?

Schools in America with poverty rates comparable to those of other nations from the PISA beat those countries by a considerable margin. Finland, with a poverty rate of only 3.4%, received 536 on the PISA–the top overall score. American schools with less than 10% students in poverty scored 550, putting that group at the top of the charts. And yet, we hear over and over that poverty isn’t an excuse for failing schools. Not an excuse, but perhaps a logical explanation for poor performance? Being raised in poverty doesn’t doom children to lousy test scores, but these kids need extra supports in school, requiring extra funding. We all know this isn’t always available, and it’s clear what this means for scores on the PISA.

The real culprit, as usual, is the stunning income inequality in our country. Bob Herbert, in a fantastic column (his last at the Times, incidentally), uses the term “maldistribution of wealth,” which I love. The way money is taxed and allocated in this country is embarrassing–there is always money for war, never enough for schools. Even more importantly, the tax system is so broken that GE pays nothing and the fruits of cutthroat capitalism are concentrated in so few hands.

So it goes: poverty negatively affects test scores, so we hammer test prep for low-achieving students. Instead, we need to address the disgustingly high levels of poverty in this country in a sustained way. No child should go hungry in the wealthiest countries in the world, but millions do every day. It’s a fucking travesty.

Meanwhile, enlightened countries like South Korea are abandoning the memorization approach and working on addressing the whole child, encouraging creativity and self-directed learning. Maybe some time in the future, American policy makers will realize their folly and follow Korea’s lead once again. As we wait for that, kids are suffering and lots are getting a bad education.

Something must change in this country.


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