Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Beyond the hype over international educational rankings

Alexander W. Wiseman, associate professor of comparative and international education, delivers the keynote talk at the Asa Packer Society event at <em>The New York Times</em> building.

With a view of the Hudson River through the West Side of Manhattan, more than 120 members of Lehigh’s Asa Packer Society convened at The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue for an enlightening discussion on Beyond Hype: How U.S. Education Competes Globally.

It was the latest in a series of regional events that bring together Asa Packer Society members and Lehigh experts to examine relevant topics.

Lehigh President Alice P. Gast, Gary Sasso, dean of the College of Education, and Michael Golden ’71, vice chairman of The New York Times Company, welcomed guests and introduced keynote speaker Alexander W. Wiseman, associate professor of comparative and international education (CIE), at the March 21 event.

In Gast’s opening remarks, she lauded the research, advancement and partnership programs that are occurring within the College of Education and local and global communities, citing Cambodia, South Africa and South Side Bethlehem.

“One of Lehigh’s greatest attributes is its translation of fundamental understanding and discoveries into practical use for the benefit of society,” she said.

‘The rankings are really misleading’

Wiseman, who has worked with government education departments worldwide for more than 17 years, asked the audience why Americans get so upset by our students’ math and science scores landing repeatedly in the “big, fat middle” when compared to countries such as Finland and China. He said that we shouldn’t be looking at test scores alone to decide if the American educational system is failing our students and that, overall, the U.S. is still doing as well as or better than a majority of its international peers.

“The rankings are really misleading. The difference between rank number 26 and number 28 is negligible. When people make policy or make decisions based on those rankings alone, they are really missing the point of the international comparisons,” he said.

“We do have the opportunity to compare how we are doing in math and science achievement, but we also have background information on what the school systems are like, the context in which teaching and learning occurs, and the characteristics of the teachers and schools. All of that data tends to be ignored in favor of the sort of big splash headlines like ‘U.S. Ranks 23rd Out Of 65’.”

Reflecting on Wiseman’s findings, Jeffrey Turner ’95 said that he has a new understanding of how America’s test scores are portrayed by the media. “Being an engineer, the testing is kind of biased with the way people look at the statistics,” he said.

Wiseman said that the international data is useful to help us “fix” what we can and also “improve” what we are doing right. He points to having too much variability in the infrastructure, capacity, and sustainability in U.S. educational systems as a cause for these middle-of-the-pack results.

Dave Polakoff ’86 discovered he didn’t know how important the context of the educational environment is in affecting standardized testing.

“The challenge of the teachers in dealing with contextual issues that they may or may not even know about is something that is obviously a huge obstacle in being an effective teacher and having great students with great test results,” he said.

Mike Connor ’80 added that he and his wife Lee ’79 now have a better understanding of some of the challenges the U.S. educational system faces given the socio-economic differences of this country, and the breadth of perspective on education.

Sasso stated that the research and applied field work in over 20 countries that the CIE program is achieving is attracting professionals from all over the country to Lehigh’s master’s program. In response to the explosion of this emerging field, the College of Education has approved an additional faculty member in the area and has supported the creation of a CIE doctoral program that will begin in fall 2012.

“One of our primary responsibilities is to create new knowledge,” said Sasso. “Dr. Wiseman and his work on comparative international education is moving us forward in the College of Education as one of the few colleges in the country that has an academic program in this area. Based on that, we are attracting a lot of students from all over the country who want to join this program, a fairly new program that is already one of the best programs of its kind in the country.”

Story by Dawn Thren

Posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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