School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect

January 20, 2015

By National Superintendents Roundtable and Horace Mann League

Adding Sunshine to the Iceberg Effect of Performance Indicators

People often say, “Numbers don’t lie,” when they paint a negative picture of the U.S. education system in international comparisons. But numbers also “tell the truth” when you look at some other startling international indicators that compare factors of social stress and economic equity of U.S. students and families with 8 other major countries studied in the report, School Performance in Context.

International assessment results are generally presented as scores, ratings, or rankings, creating what might be called a scoreboard mentality. But thoughtful private and public leaders know instinctively that a range of social, economic, and cultural conditions affect those numbers. For example, a country with the highest average GDP per person might also have an extraordinarily high level of economic inequity and social stresses that have profound implications for students and their achievement in school.

Some countries are homogeneous, while others are highly diverse, adding to both richness and complexity. The level of support for young families and early education can vary wildly, and so can the collection of life experiences - from enlightening to threatening - that children bring with them to school.

In some cases, reported national outcomes are measured broadly. In others, assessments may reflect only a selected portion of one city. The numbers may not be as simple as they seem.

When we look at the big picture of international comparisons, the international academic results are truly just the tip of the
iceberg. International assessments are a hot topic, but are reductive and loaded with what could be considered inappropriate comparisons. We must judge schools on performance, but we also must understand them in the social and economic context in which they function.

It is a mistake to believe that one number can tell us all we need to know.

Both the public and policymakers must understand what is going on beneath the waterline. Only after looking at the entire
picture, can they then draw their own conclusions and take appropriate action within the sphere of their influence.

This extensive study provides another way to look at comparative performance by examining school achievement within the economic and social context of 9 prominent nations: Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Our hope is that this unique study will help motivate those who live in several nations, including the U.S., to better grasp and carry on more constructive conversations about the need for members of a society to come together to educate every child to the fullest rather than dwell on summative box scores.

Our work was not designed to suggest that the United States is the most successful or unsuccessful of these nations. The study examined the American school system in comparison to systems in nations that are somewhat similar or are often compared with the United States. We explored many of the factors involved in educating today’s young people.

Without drawing attention to one indicator at the expense of others, the authors ask readers to consider them all before drawing conclusions about system performance. In particular, we ask readers to consider school outcomes in the context of the levels of economic inequity, childhood poverty, and violence apparent in many American communities. These indicators suggest that a policy response unrelated to schools is essential to increased opportunity and hope and to improved education in the United States.

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