NYT Editors Stare at an Inkblot, See a Progressive Education Platform

by Jason Richwine

After the OECD released the results of the PISA — a high-profile international test given to 15-year-olds in 65 different countries — a refreshing number of commentators cautioned against jumping to any hasty conclusions. But no such restraint was shown by the New York Times editorial board, which conveniently sees the PISA scores as justifying the Left’s usual goals for education policy.

Glancing at the list of the best-performing countries, the editors tell some just-so stories to explain the PISA rankings. They start with Finland, which is said to have strict teacher-training requirements. Is that a lesson for education policy that, in the Times’ words, “can no longer be ignored by the United States”? While it’s true that education training in the U.S. generally lacks the rigor of other college-level programs, there is little evidence that increasing formal entry requirements – e.g., creating a “teacher bar exam” – will ultimately improve teacher effectiveness.

Turning to Canada, the Times editors praise its province-level school funding, in contrast to the local property taxes that help fund American schools. But there is no clear evidence that changing the spending formulas will boost achievement. Some of the worst-performing districts in the U.S. are among the best funded. And, contrary to popular belief, overall spending levels are about equal for white and minority students.

According to the Times’ dubious account, China has succeeded in large part by adopting an anti-elitist ethos that transfers teachers to low-performing areas and houses rural and urban students together. But it’s difficult to see how the U.S. education system needs more egalitarian thinking rather than less. College-for-all ideology in the U.S. has progressed to the point where some gifted kids are excluded from Advanced Placement classes in the name of equal opportunity! 

The Times editors have engaged in what education scholar Jay Greene calls the PISA Rorschach test. The rankings are like an inkblot, and what people see in the inkblot is not a new insight, but rather a reflection of their preexisting preferences. To glean any real lessons for education policy from the PISA data, the Times’ editors will need to look somewhere other than deep within themselves.

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