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Thursday Complexity Post
December 5, 2013


Views Differ on International Test Scores


The lackluster performance of American 15-year-olds in international academic testing is arousing debate, and widely diverging viewpoints are strikingly crystallized in essays by Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee.


The Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, was administered to 15 year olds in 65 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes the world's wealthiest nations. A New York Times story by Motoko Rich reports that more than 6,000 American kids took the tests. The story says American test-takers were out-scored in math by students in 29 countries. Students in 22 countries did better in science, and students in 19 countries did bettering reading. The scores put school systems in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea in the top ranks.  


"In the midst of increasingly polarized discussions about public school education, the scores set off a familiar round of hand-wringing, blaming and credit-taking," Rich writes.


Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington DC, writes in Timethat we should be appalled at the state of American public schools, which she says perform "at the same level as (those in) the Slovak Republic where the government spends half as much per pupil and the GDP is 171 times smaller." Rhee says America didn't settle for 26th place in the Olympics, and we shouldn't settle for an educational system that puts young Americans at a disadvantage in an increasingly global economy.


Diane Ravitch, historian of education at New York University, says if the PISA scores show anything, it's that the test and punish strategies of the last dozen years don't work. "No child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores," Ravitch writes at Huffington Post. She notes American kids have never scored near the top in international testing. Rhee agrees, but says we need to keep aiming higher. Ravitch cites research by educational consultant and author Keith Baker who found no relationship between a nation's economic productivity, the quality of its life and democratic institutions, and test scores of its students. As a sign of creativity, Ravitch writes, the U.S. has produced more patents per million people than any other nation.


Rhee, who is also the founder of StudentsFirst, a political lobbying and education reform nonprofit, asserts that "We spend so much time on making our kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of taking the time necessary to make them good." She says that underpinning educational improvement, we must have "a national desire to become the best, and our reaction to the PISA results will indicate whether that is the case."


Ravitch says improving the quality of life for the nearly one quarter of American students who live in poverty would improve their academic performance. Ravitch thinks the more we emphasize test scores, the more we reward compliance and conformity, and the less we focus on ingenuity, creativity, the ability to think differently and capacity to ask good questions. She writes that she'd prefer tending to "character, persistence, ambition, hard work and big dreams," none of which can be measured by standardized tests like PISA.


Red Rhee's piece here, Ravitch's piece here, and the New York Times story here.


Remember PlexusCalls!

Friday, December 13, 2013 - 1-2 PM ET

Innovation and Resilience in Leadership  
Guests: Martha Johnson and Sharon Benjamin 




In her new book, On My Watch, Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience, Martha Johnson, former administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, tells of the strategic innovation that characterized her tenure before her abrupt resignation in the wake of a scandal regarding an internal training conference held in Las Vegas. The GSA influences all of government and can model desperately needed innovation, Johnson says, adding that the scandal headlines and political jokes shouldn't be the only public picture of GSA. Johnson's book details cutting edge improvement strategies she promoted, and the systemic challenges of leading a large agency-working without complete information, the distortions of scale-and the constraints of government service. She also reflects on her highly public resignation and the lessons she believes can help leaders advance innovation and shoulder risk.


Martha Johnson is leadership speaker and writer who draws on the lessons learned as an executive with a more than 30-year career in public and private organizations. Her focus is "Sensible Leadership" which reflects today's need for leaders who are strategic, resilient, pragmatic, and resourceful. She was nominated by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate to be the administrator of the GSA, a post she held for two years. She also served eight years with the Clinton Administration and was appointed to two commissions with the British Government. Her private sector career has spanned information technology, architecture, strategic consulting, and the automotive industry. In addition to On My Watch, Johnson has also published a novel, In Our Midst, which placed in the semi-finals of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. Johnson earned a BA from Oberlin College and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management. She is married, has two adult children, an elderly father, and lives in Annapolis, Maryland.


Sharon Benjamin, PhD is principal of Alchemy, a Washington D.C. based management consulting practice. She consults with multi-lateral, NGO and healthcare organizations. An adjunct at NYU, she teaches the leadership capstone course for MPA students. Her work supports leaders seeking to effect profound transformation -- within themselves and their organizations, pioneering innovative methods such as Positive Deviance. Her previous positions have included Vice President for Marketing for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. and Director for Major Gifts for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge MA. She earned her doctorate in organizational behavior from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati OH, where she has co-taught three leadership seminars. She has been active in the non-profit community, serving as Treasurer of the Board Earthworks, Chair of the Board of Directors of, and a member of Oceana's Board of Governors.


Audio from all PlexusCall series are available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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