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Overconfidence, Low Expectations, Little Innovation: Not a Good Mixture

Remember that clip from the ages-old education documentary Waiting for Superman, where we’re told that American students are behind the pack in math in almost any way you measure it, except for one:

Yes, when it comes to students’ classroom confidence (“I get good marks in mathematics”), a much different story emerges: The USA is #1! Compare that to #32 in actual math proficiency overall, or #28 among kids with college-educated parents.

That unearned sense of self-esteem gains greater clarity in the light of a newly reported survey from the world’s foremost collector of international education data. The New York Times‘ David Leonhardt highlights a revealing (and unsettling) result: Among 29 countries surveyed, U.S. school principals are more likely than their peers in any other country to see a large share of their students as “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

Yet most other countries in the group have higher rates of “disadvantaged” children based primarily on family income and parents’ education. What’s going on here? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Andreas Schleicher, who oversaw the study, brings out a powerful point:

…he found the results especially worrisome because principals’ perceptions of disadvantage correlated more strongly with student performance than actual disadvantage. That is, low-income students perform particularly poorly on mathematics tests in countries where a large number of principals describe their students as disadvantaged — like the United States.

Now, of course, correlation is not causation. But it speaks to something troubling when weaker learning lines up better with perceptions of poverty than with with actual poverty levels. As Leonhardt’s post intelligently speculates, more than any country, the U.S. may be looking at the fruit of “low expectations.”

More students feel unjustifiably good about their math skills, while more of their school leaders see significantly challenges from poverty? It seems safe to say that U.S. education has a large-scale cultural problem that results in a disconnect from reality.

At which point, little Eddie impertinently asks, “Does this widespread perception have anything to do with American middle-class students lagging behind their peers?” More to the point, where does the disconnect come from, and what can be done about it?

Huge questions, obviously. A good place to search are the small but growing islands of excellence that are bucking the trends. They are practicing a much better kind of disconnect — that is, breaking the link between demographics and destiny. Expanding those islands more quickly and effectively has to be a key part of any education reform strategy. And that requires real change.

Speaking of which, I almost forgot to mention another international comparison that puts our nation’s schools in an unflattering light. Via Education Week comes the news that the U.S. gets the third-lowest scores in the area of “education innovation.” Want to figure out what they mean by “innovation,” or just to go swimming in data? Check out the 300-plus page OECD report.

As for me, given all this July heat in Colorado, it’s time to have some fun with a different kind of swimming.