The Iceberg Effect: Reports That Set Us Ever Further Behind

Cross-posted at Education Week

I recently came across a report you have probably never heard of titled The Iceberg Effect. It represents itself as the report of a serious international comparative research study, claiming to put the international comparisons of national student performance into a new and more reasonable perspective.  But it is nothing of the sort.  It is a polemic unhinged from any serious analysis.

Consider the report’s first education policy recommendation: “Minimize alarmist rhetoric around the schools.”  Yup, the problem with the schools is not their performance, but the alarmist rhetoric about their performance. And the authors of this report are out to fix that.  I don’t mean they are out to improve the performance of American schools.  No, they are out to show that 1) American schools are performing much better than you thought, notwithstanding their mediocre performance on the three most highly regarded comparative measures of student performance, 2) you cannot attribute the poor performance of American students to American educators (just in case you don’t believe the schools are really doing well, they want you to understand that it is in no way the fault of the schools they attend) and 3) the real problem is that we don’t provide much support for young children, we have a very violent society, our kids live with an enormous amount of stress and the schools are overwhelmed by the results of severe poverty and growing income inequality.

It comes down to a message to Americans that, if we would just look at the right data, we would understand that our schools are actually doing much better than the international comparative data on student achievement would lead you to believe, and, to the extent that that is not true, it is entirely due to factors over which the schools have no control.

How, you might ask, do the authors conclude that American students are doing well despite the data showing that students in more than 25 nations outperform our students? That, it turns out, was easy.  The very first conclusion in the report states “…it seems clear that the United States has the most highly educated workforce among these nations.”  But they are not reporting on the nations that scored the highest on the international comparisons, a list that includes all the highly industrialized countries and many more.  They are reporting on the nine nations they decided to compare the U.S. to: Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom.  I’ll get to their choice of countries in a moment, but first, I want to deal with their claim that the United States has the best-educated work force in the world.

That is a stunningly ignorant claim.  Forty years ago, it was true.  But then the world caught up to us.  And many of those countries then realized that, in the next stage of national education development, it would be the quality of education that a work force has, not the quantity that would make the most difference in workforce quality.  The OECD’s PIAAC report is based on data from carefully conducted surveys of working-age adults in a long list of participating countries.  The survey measures not how much education these workers have, rather, it measures what they know and can do with what they know.  An ETS analysis of the OECD data shows that, although American “millennial” workers continue to have more years of education than those from other industrialized countries, notwithstanding all that “education,” they actually know less and can do less with what they know than the workers in almost all the other industrialized countries.  The OECD PIAAC studies have gotten a great deal of publicity.  It is very unlikely that the authors of this study were not aware of it.  So we must conclude that they ignored it because it did not support their outlandish claims.

But what is even more outlandish is their choice of countries to include in their survey.  In a very revealing statement, they say that it is unreasonable to compare the United States to other countries that are not like the United States.  So how did they decide which countries are “like the United States”?  They picked the G7 and, for good measure, added China and Finland in the light of interest (on the part of parties unnamed) in the educational performance of these countries.

It is hardly clear why the countries included in the G-7 and China and Finland are “like the United States.”  The authors never say.  But it turns out that it does not matter.  They are testing a hypothesis.  That hypothesis is, apparently, that, if one picks a set of dependent variables of interest, only one of which is student achievement, then two things will happen: First, the United States will not look anywhere near as bad as when student achievement and equity are the only dependent variables of interest, and, second, you can make the United States look bad on the variables that you want the United States to look bad on.


That should not be too hard.  You don’t need any heavy-duty research to do that.  You just need to cherry pick the data tables.  Or so you would think.  But, as I just pointed out, they fail even at that task.  Sure, by making up a category called “system performance,” made up of a random collection of metrics mostly related to attainment, you should be able to take the heat off the mediocre performance of American high school students on international comparisons.  But think about this: What good does it do us to graduate more students if what they actually know as a result of all these years of study is much less than what students in other countries with fewer years of education know and can do?  That is a picture of one of the world’s most inefficient education systems.

We don’t need this study to tell us that other countries do a better job of early childhood education than the United States, or that other countries have lower rates of violence in their societies than does the United States.  We have known all that for a long time.  The authors want us to believe that, if they remind us of this data, they will relieve the pressure on our schools to improve student performance.  That conclusion hardly follows.  The best of the countries we are competing with are doing a better job of early childhood education and managing to have societies that provide more support to families with young children and, at the same time, have been making major changes in the way they run their public education systems.  None of the top performers think that doing a good job on early childhood education and providing support to families with young children is a substitute for greatly improving the performance of their schools.  They would be amazed at such a proposition.  If you were looking to this report for evidence that such a strategy could work, that it could propel the United States into the ranks of top performers in education, you would look in vain.

The Iceberg Effect is just another in a long line of bromides dressed up to look like a research report, yet another attempt to reassure American educators that the current interest in international comparisons of student achievement is unfair and inaccurate, that there is really no reason at all to be concerned, that this too will blow over.

It will not blow over.  We cannot compare the United States only to countries that we decide are in some way “like us.”  American workers compete with countries run by dictators and democrats, countries that are poor and countries that are rich, countries that provide high levels of support to families with young children and countries that provide little or none.  We cannot choose our competition.  Our workers have to compete with workers in all of these countries. The dynamics of the global economy are very unforgiving.  No one will give us a pass because we have a good excuse from our parents.

Income inequality, highly concentrated poverty, unequal distribution of resources for schools, other sources of stress on children and schools and the other issues catalogued by the authors of this report are indeed serious problems.  My organization has repeatedly called for policy makers to address them.  But many countries whose children are outperforming American students—often by a wide margin—also suffer from these problems.  The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most democratic.  That is what has enabled us to live in a country in which our workers have more education than those in any other country and it is what has enabled us to spend more per student than all but a handful of other countries.  But, despite our wealth, we live in a country whose high school students are achieving at mediocre levels and whose workers’ measured knowledge and skills are among the lowest in the industrialized world.  That will not change as long as American educators and American researchers continue to tranquilize themselves with reports like this.

The possibility that the authors of this report have not entertained is that the rising levels of inequality, the poverty among schoolchildren, the violence in our most destitute communities, the sense of hopelessness in many working class communities could be the result of failing to make the changes in our education system that other countries have made. If our educators do not accept their share of the responsibility for our poor performance, if they fail to learn from the strategies that other countries have used to produce much higher student performance, greater equity and lower cost than the United States, then it will avail us little to reduce poverty among children, violence in our communities and stress in our children.  Our schools will still be sub-par.

The tragedy of this report and countless others like it is that it will put off the day when this enormously wealthy country decides to do whatever it has to do to reverse course and fix our schools.  The time for self-serving excuse-making is over.  Reports like this are not part of the solution.  They are part of the problem.