Do educators wave their arms to make their case for educational reform grow?

Questioning the Case for Nationalized Education Reform

When my daughter was 5-years old, she asked, “How do the trees flap their leaves to make the wind blow?”  She quickly learned that correlation does not mean cause, a lesson the average American politician needs to learn when it comes to promoting the public good, especially education.

Contemporary thinking – that is to say Washington “group think” – promotes the notion that for America to be competitive in the 21st century, the Federal Government and the state (translation: “We” the taxpayers) need to heavily “invest” (translation: spend) to “reform” (translation: re-formulate) American education.  The most recent fad is “Common Core State Standards (CCSS),” which, if implemented, will remove control of education from the states, create a one-size fits all, nationalized K-12 education system, with an estimated transitional price tag of $3B to $12B (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?” (May, 2012)).

Educational reform proponents’ two principal arguments are: (a) America’s children are ‘lagging’ behind international peers in terms of academic achievement and (b) the economic vibrancy and the future of the United States relies upon American students outranking their global peers on international tests of academic achievement. In other words: student scores on international tests are a measure of future prosperity? Does correlation mean cause?

These arguments collapse upon examination of peer reviewed, empirical literature, according to Christopher Tienken, editor of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Journal of Scholarship and Practice.  Mr. Tienken suggests these are “bankrupt” arguments (Commentary, “AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice,” v. 7, No. 4, Winter 2011).  Instead, he argues that other factors are more central to economic prosperity than education. For example, he states, “[China’s] continued manipulation of its currency … and iron fisted control of its labor pool, has a greater effect on our economic strength than if every American child scored at the top of every international test…”  China’s undervaluation of its currency cost the U.S. almost 1 million jobs, over $200B in lost economic growth, and 1.5% of its Gross Domestic Product in 2010 (Washington Times 2010).  The facts show that G20 countries’ economic strength rely more on policy than education achievement.

To determine if doubling down on education “reform and investment” is prudent, three fundamental questions must be answered: (a) what factors do business leaders believe will drive 21st century prosperity; (b) how does American students’ educational achievement compare to international peers’ performance; and (3) to what extent does education achievement correlate with a country’s economic prosperity, much less cause it?

What Factors Will Drive Economic Prosperity in the 21st Century?

According to a 2010 Global Chief Executive Study by IBM Corporation (, which surveyed 1,500 of the world’s leading corporate CEOs, the authors identified four 21st century business Critical Success Factors (CSFs): (a) creative leadership strategies; (b) global collaboration and cooperation among companies a (c) proposal, product, and service differentiation that flows from operational dexterity; (d) use of complexity to a strategic advantage.

Education is not directly identified by the 1,500 CEOs as a critical success factor.  While one may argue that education is an underlying condition for success (even a necessary condition), it is clear from this list that educational achievement on international tests is not a sufficient condition.  Clearly other factors – such as collaboration, cooperation, operational dexterity – which can be learned and tested outside of a formal education system are at play, and the extent to which they interrelate is open for debate.  More important, it is unclear if prosperity drives the market for education or the education market drives prosperity.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

How does American Education Performance Compare to its Global Peers?

On the global triennial 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) science test (OECD, 2008), the United States had the greatest number of 15 year old students score at the highest levels. The United States had approximately two-times the number of 15 year-old students who scored at the top levels of the 2006 PISA science test compared to Japan.  The United States accounted for 25% of the top scoring students in the world on the test, even though the United States did not outrank Japan overall.

Over 70% of recent U.S. high school graduates were enrolled in colleges and universities in 2009 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010).  Approximately 30% of U.S. adults between the ages of 25-34 years old hold at least a Bachelor’s degree.  Only six other industrialized nations have a higher percentage of their population holding at least a Bachelor’s degree (OECD, 2009) but other countries’ economies pale in comparison to the United States’ economy.

The 2010 World Economic Forum stated that the United States has an outstanding university system.  Eleven of the top 15 universities in the world are located here.  The United Kingdom is next with three out of the top 15 (The Times Higher Education, 2010).  It is illogical that a country with the best university system in the world would have a failing elementary and secondary education system that requires “fundamental” transformation.

Does Educational Achievement Correlate to Economic Prosperity?

The United States ranked either first or second out of 139 nations on the 2010 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), eight of the 10 years, between 2000 and 2009, and never ranked below sixth place during that period.   No other country matches this record.

The US workforce is one of the most productive in the world.  Representing approximately five-percent of the world’s population, the U.S. produces 21% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.  According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, (2010) the United States is home to more than 28% of the patents granted globally, the largest percentage of any country.  Japan is second with 20%.

Correlations between student international test rankings and economic strength can be statistically significant and moderately strong when all the small or weak economies like Poland, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic are included in a sample with G20 countries.    For example, if 18 countries with weak or collapsing economies and whose students have test scores above those of the United States are included in the sample, positive relationship can be shown between test scores and economic growth. (Tienken, 2008). In other words, by using a sample selection that compares academic achievement without any consideration for differences in economic size, is an apples-to-oranges comparison and is statistically misleading.

Conversely, if the sample includes only the G14 or G20 countries, the relationship between international test rank and economic strength is non-existent or even negative.  To illustrate this point, a comparison of Japan’s and the United States’ performance over the period 1989-2010 is instructive.

Japan’s economy and stock market have been in shambles for two decades. Japan’s stock market closed at a high of 38,915 on December 31, 1989.  On October 15, 2010, it closed at 9,500, or approximately 75% lower.  Japan has had national curriculum standards and testing for more than 30 years and consistently outranks most other nations on international math and science tests. Japan has consistently ranked in the Top 10 on international mathematics tests since the 1980s and has always ranked higher than the United States on these tests.

Over roughly the same period, the United States’ Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIJA) rose above 1,200 points for the first time on April 26, 1983, the day “A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) was released.  On January 4, 2011, the DJIA closed at 11,691 – a ten-fold increase.  The United States consistently outranks Japan on the World Economic Forum’s Growth Competitiveness Index.

Beyond this simple comparison that illustrates the broader statistic, nations like Canada, Australia, Germany, and Switzerland – which have strong economies and consistently rank higher than the United States on international tests – do not have mandated, internationally benchmarked, national curriculum standards.


It is clear from this analysis that something other than academic achievement drives prosperity.  A good working hypothesis is that strong moral values, fiscal responsibility, work ethic, constitutional freedoms, dedication to the rule of law, and limited regulation, among other factors, created a culture of entrepreneurship that resulted in prosperity, not the United States’ rankings on international math and science tests.  As America prospered, knowledge grew, and so did the market that served it.

In support of this hypothesis, one only need consult history.  Up until the founding of the American republic, economies were principally agrarian.  Subsequent to the founding, technological innovation and prosperity exploded, especially in America.   My grandmother, born in the 1890s, started her life living on a farm in the country, riding a horse-drawn wagon 20 miles to town, four times per year.  She lived to own a home in the city, with all its conveniences, and to see America put a man on the moon.  Americans in her generation were fortunate if they completed high school.  Yet her generation’s grit, determination, perseverance, and core values gave birth to the so-called “Greatest Generation.”  This generation lived through a depression, won World War II and Korea, put a man on the moon, and left the Baby Boom generation an American economy that at one time produced 25% of the world’s GDP even though America represented 5% of the its population. In 1940, one in 20 (5%) held a Bachelor’s degree or greater (2000 U.S. Census, Chapter 10, Education).

Today, 75% of those graduating high-school attend college and approximately one in four (25%) hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher, yet unemployment of young adults in the 18 to 29 year old range is 16.1% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, September, 2013).  The solution is not doubling down on our investment in education.  The solution is doubling down on those principles that gave us prosperity in the first place.

Correlation does not mean cause.

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