Guest Column

Something’s Amiss in the International Race and Rankings


In a high school cross-country meet, each team typically fields seven runners who traverse a 3.1-mile course over hill and dale and in every kind of weather condition.

The team is scored on the aggregate total of the finishing positions of its top five runners, so a team with runners in the first, fifth, seventh, 10th and 20th places will have a score of 43. The team with the lowest total score wins.

What makes this a team as well as an individual sport is that everyone in the race has a positive or negative effect on every other runner’s place and on the overall team scores. Having the fastest runner does not guarantee victory. One squad might have the first runner yet finish in last place.

Great variations often exist among runners in terms of their natural physical attributes, training methods, commitment to conditioning, nutrition and state of mind. These factors interact in ways that ultimately affect performance in a given race or over time. Statistics can be misleading without all the facts.

Federal Directives
Over the past decade there have been major policy directives for improving America’s schools. The most recent federal initiatives, Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, are driven by rhetoric and a rationale that pit U.S. students and schools in a race against international competition. Americans hear media reports on global rankings about U.S. performance in reading, math and science in which students in Asian and European countries appear to be leading this international race.

Finland has been a front-runner in these latest reports. China (Shanghai) also has shown up among the global leaders. Baffled Americans, unaccustomed to being also-rans, debate the reasons for our poor comparative standing on the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, better known by their acronyms, PISA and TIMSS. How is it that these countries outperform our students? Are the results related to instruction, curricular rigor, teacher training, length of school day or year? Are foreign schools doing a better job preparing students for the tests? Or might other socio-economic and demographic factors affect performance?

With the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the United States decided that in order to compete in this international race, it needed to raise the reading and math scores of elementary and middle school students. A decade later, we continue to linger in the middle of the pack. When NCLB was legislated, schools were to test all students, including those living in the United States for a year plus one day, regardless of whether they could speak English. Schools were to assess cognitively disabled students and hold them to the same standards as those without a learning problem.

Aside from language barriers or learning disabilities, there are factors about America’s “scholastic team” that are never reported with international rankings — who takes the test, how they have been prepared, and what nonacademic variables may impact performance.

A 2010 UNICEF report, “The Children Left Behind,” analyzed ways in which children in 24 of the world’s wealthiest nations are supported in the areas of health, material comfort and education. This was a rare chance to see rankings in categories other than education. How did America fare in these international races?

In the category of material well-being, the United States ranked 23rd. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 20 percent of American children live in poverty while more than 40 percent live in low-income housing. Over the last decade, the percentage of impoverished children has grown by a third. On meas-ures of health, U.S. children also ranked 23rd — both surprising and ironic for a country considered the world’s wealthiest.

The United States placed 19th among the 24 wealthy countries in educational well-being. Our math ranking was 13th.

Finland’s Standing
How did Finland, the pacesetter in the education race, do on these scales? The Finnish material well-being ranking was sixth in the world while health came in at 16th. The Netherlands led the world in health well-being and finished third in the education standings.

The UNICEF report’s rankings suggest a pattern of relationships among the three factors. When the health and material well-being scores are higher, so is the education standing. Could there be a correlation? Or are other variables, such as the pool of students tested, language barriers or test preparation, affecting the race’s outcome? Could it be as economies and health systems improve in other countries, the United States, with its own complex social hierarchy, is not necessarily falling behind but simply running in the same place while other nations catch up?

The questions about the data underlying such rankings are many. While it is important for the United States to ensure its citizenry is well-educated and prepared to contribute to our global competitiveness, we must be cautious in how we draw conclusions about the causes of our poor showing on such rankings. Without considering the nonacademic variables or seeing the relationship between poverty and health on learning, generalizations and assumptions will guide federal policy and legislation. Of late, this has led to an obsession with testing.

Comparing homogenous Finland, the Netherlands or, more recently, China to the demographically diverse United States creates a false dichotomy of good school systems and bad ones. Just as we need to know the times and places of each of the runners on the cross country team to understand the team’s finish, we also need to understand how the competitors trained, their nutritional habits, their personal commitment to training and other non-race factors.

Similarly, we ought to better recognize the variations in our nation’s systems that affect material wealth, health and education and how these rankings line up in a given year and over time in such a way that impact each other. Statistics can be misleading without all the facts.

Ken Mitchell is superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y. E-mail: