The Iceberg Effect

The Iceberg Effect–A Better Look At American Schools

The Horace Mann League of the USA and the National Superintendents Roundtable, a group of district leaders from 30 states, released “The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often-Overlooked Educational Indicators” this January. The author, James J Harvey, the Executive Director of the Roundtable, gathered the latest 5 years of data on nine economically similar nations: the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, China, Finland, Japan, France, Germany, and Italy. The study examined 24 indicators in six areas related to children and education.  A graphic in the executive summary shows an iceberg, and above the water are student and system outcomes, the usual test scores used in international comparisons.  But this study also looks underwater at the rest of the iceberg, where we find support for schools, support for young families, inequity and inequality, and social stress and violence (p. 5 of executive summary.)

Test Results Don’t Measure Educational Success

The summary report’s introduction says: “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.”  And a few lines later: “It is a mistake to believe that one number can tell us all we need to know.”

A Wider Balance of Data Makes Better Comparisons

The study grants up to 40 points available in each of the 24 indicators, and ranks the nine nations by indicator. What strikes Harvey is how each nation looks different depending on which indicators are being considered. For example, the US has the least social stress (violence and drug-related deaths, teen births, foreign-born youth, etc.) among the nine, and ranks first in system outcomes overall. Harvey suggests that looking at PISA scores or TIMMS scores alone is not a particularly well-balanced way to think about the success of a nation’s educational programs. There’s more to producing valuable outcomes for schools than numbers.

This is indeed a refreshing reexamination of international measures that suggest societal outcomes that are important in determining the success of a society. It’s clear that for many years, certainly since there has been an increasing emphasis on comparing educational outcomes on international test results, American schools have been hammered by criticism of public schools as failures because our national test scores are not the highest in the world. How refreshing to look at data that is being interpreted to show that our overall outcomes are, in fact, world class.

Key ‘Reformers’ Are Not Objective Educators

The reform movement has been largely funded and driven by an investor class of businessmen that see high numbers (profits, or Return On Equity) as the only measure of success. It’s backed by well-intentioned public figures (Bill Gates, the Waltons, Eli Broad, etc.) who are not trained educators.  What drives these individuals and groups to turn towards education as a field to criticize?

When hedge fund managers look at schools as a manufacturing process and promote the idea that high test scores define success, they have downgraded education from a means to develop citizens to a way to produce a widget to fill a slot in their business model. But increasingly, their business models are not centered on doing good for Americans, but  on making a profit for their company and for themselves, regardless of the impact on society. They are not into development of human capital. They push H1B visa so they can import foreign skilled workers at low wages instead of hiring Americans with the same skills who are under- and unemployed. They don’t want to spend the capital to improve the living conditions and employment opportunities in our inner cities, but they want to blame bad schools and bad teachers for the societal ills of those impoverished communities. They are not problem solvers dedicated to the hard work of improving lives.

I stray, however, from The Iceberg Effect. The full 58 page report, with the data, is a refreshing reminder that test scores do not define a strong society or an effective support system that builds citizens for the future.  Check it out here.


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