Let the Best Practices Rorschach Test Begin

What do you see in this picture? The new PISA results are out and education charlatans of every stripe are finding proof of their own preferred policy solution.

Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association sees addressing poverty as the solution: “The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance — the effects of poverty on students.” There is some evidence for this, but the OECD analysis finds that student socioeconomic status only explains 15% of the variance in test results. And according to the Wall Street Journal coverage, “Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, noted that American students from families with incomes in the highest quartile did not perform as well as students with similar backgrounds in other countries.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, “‘None of the top-tier countries,’ said Randi Weingarten head of the American Federation of Teachers, ‘nor any of those that have made great leaps in student performance, like Poland and Germany, has a fixation on testing like the United States does.’” Except many of the big gainers, particularly in Asia, do fixate on testing.

Best Practices guru, Marc Tucker, was on NPR this morning saying something about how “what you will find among the top performers” is that they”provide more resources to kids who are harder to educate than kids who are easier to educate.” But in the San Jose Mercury News Tucker seems to suggest that more resources is not the solution when he asks, “Why are we not getting more bang for the buck?” And on NPR Tucker credited Singapore’s success to “not just more teachers but better teachers.” But the Wall Street Journal cites the OECD analysis, saying it “found a low connection between class size and test scores.” And in the country Tautology Land better teachers are the ones who produce better scores.

It is possible to do credible social scientific analyses of international test scores if you do something like a regression that systematically examines variation in performance within and across countries controlling for other variables. See for example work by Ludger Woessmann. But just eyeballing the top performers and making up stories about why they succeeded based on picking and choosing characteristics about them is pure quackery. As I’ve said before, best practices are the worst.

So, reach for your Duck Dynasty duck quacker and watch as folks make up stories about the picture above. Personally, I see a cute little dog.

—Jay P. Greene

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