Political Incompetence, Not Public Ed.

Monday, May 19th, 2014


The unending cacophony of stories of public education failure and a need to reform it for the future has been ongoing since before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2002). Education bureaucrats, pundits, business profiteers, and policymakers dispense fraudulent claims about how the performance of teachers, school administrators, students, higher education faculty, and parents are causing economic Armageddon for the United States. State and federal policymakers and bureaucrats, along with executive directors of think-tanks and private foundations, CEO’s of big-box retail stores, and barons of media empires forewarn of impending economic implosion. They claim a need to save America’s children from ineffective teachers and school administrators through education corporatization, privatization, centralization, and curricular standardization of public education via programs like the Common Core State Standards, and national testing. But who is failing whom?

The stories of public education failure by those who view education from a quarterly profit margin standpoint do not hold up well to empirical scrutiny. In this writing, I use the 2013-2014 rankings and data from the World Economic Forum ([WEF], Schwab, 2013) and the Programme for International Student Assessment ([PISA] OECD, 2014) that question the claims of (a) the impending cataclysmic decline of U.S. economic performance and (b) the accusation that public school educators are to blame for any economic shortcomings in the U.S. economy. I argue that it is ineffective political and bureaucratic leadership that is really to blame for any economic issues faced by the U.S.

Repeated Rebuttals

I presented data in previous articles that questioned the relationship between education outputs in G8 countries, as measured by results on international tests and indicators of economic prowess (Tienken, 2008; 2013). I also presented data that suggest rankings on international tests do not predict a country’s economic fortune in the G20 global competitiveness shark tank (Tienken & Orlich, 2013). Furthermore, I and others demonstrated with empirical evidence that U.S. students do quite well on international tests when one compares apples to apples based on poverty and childhood welfare indicators (Riddle, 2010; Tienken, 2013, Zhao, 2014). For example, U.S. students ranked 32nd on PISA mathematics in 2012 when I removed the non-representative cities and districts of Shanghai, Macao, and Hong Kong (OECD, 2014). Cities, provinces, or special administration districts within countries do not represent countries, especially in China where less than half of all students are still in school at age 15 when the PISA is administered (Rural Education Action Program, 2013a, 2013b).

The mean PISA mathematics score for U.S. students in 2012 was 481 (OECD, 2014). However, when I used the PISA Data Explorer from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES, 2014) to examine the mean score for students who attended schools with 10% or less poverty, the score rises to 523 and the ranking rockets to 6th, tied with the Netherlands (IES, 2014). Poverty accounts for 42 points and 26 ranking positions for U.S. students on the 2012 PISA mathematics portion.

I used the 10% poverty rate for my calculations because that is close to the 10.9% average child poverty rate for the 22 OECD member countries that outranked the United States on the 2012 PISA math test and almost identical to the 10.5% rate for the top 10 scoring OECD countries on the 2012 PISA math test (OECD, 2014).

Growth Competitiveness Index

The World Economic Forum releases yearly data and rankings in the form of the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), a tool that measures the overall competitiveness of more than 145 national economies. The WEF (Schwab, 2013) defines competitiveness as:

the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country. The level of productivity, in turn, sets the level of prosperity that can be reached by an economy. The productivity level also determines the rates of return obtained by investments in an economy, which in turn are the fundamental drivers of its growth rates. In other words, a more competitive economy is one that is likely to grow faster over time. (p. 4)

The WEF researchers rank countries’ economies based on a set of “12 pillars” (Schwab, 2013, p. 4) of competitiveness. The pillars are (1) institutional environment, (2) infrastructure, (3) macroeconomic environment, (4) health and primary education, (5) higher education and training, (6) goods market efficiency, (7) labor market efficiency, (8) financial market development, (9) technological readiness, (10) market size, (11) business sophistication, and (12) innovation. The health and primary education pillar is made up of six indicators, only one of which is education related: primary education enrollment rate. The WEF calculates an overall GCI from the 12 pillars and also provides rankings for each pillar.

Like other indices, the GCI has its weaknesses (Ensor, 2013). Among the potential threats to validity is the overall subjectivity of the rankings based on survey responses from business and governmental officials. As with all rankings, these should be interpreted with caution. I present rankings and data from the GCI as just another set of data to be considered among others I presented previously in various forums.

 Overall Competitiveness

Between 1995 and 2013 the United States ranked either first or second on the GCI 11 times.  However, the United States ranked seventh on the 2012–2013 list and fifth on the 2013–2014 list; the first time that the U.S. ranked fifth or lower for two consecutive years. Overall, the U.S. has been the most economically dominant nation on the planet over the long-haul with an average Growth Competitiveness ranking of 2.89 out of 148 economies since 1995. The data suggest a rather robust economic record dating back almost two decades. For a point of reference, China ranked 29th during the last two years whereas Switzerland ranked first.

As noted earlier, there are 12 pillars that make up overall competitiveness. All the pillars are outside of the control of educators. Public school educators do not influence the macro-economic environment. Nor do they determine the efficiency of markets. Educators do not control market size, business sophistication, or financial market development. They cannot curtail graft or bribery. In fact, the measures on the GCI are influenced more by state and national industrial, health, trade, monetary, tax, and labor policies and regulations than by what a 15 year-old student scores on an international test.

According to the researchers at the WEF, the recent three-year slide of the United States in the rankings was attributed to political infighting, austerity measures through sequestration, and a lack or appropriate regulatory protections in the finance industry, not education output from teachers and students. The WEF researchers (Schwab, 2012) provided insight into the 2012 downward move of the United States to seventh place by stating: “The global economy faces a number of significant and interrelated challenges that could hamper a genuine upturn after an economic crisis . . . notably in the U.S. where political gridlock on fiscal tightening could dampen the growth outlook.” (p. xiii)

Unless lower than expected test scores cause political gridlock, there seems to be another group of people to point fingers at about the U.S. economic woes and trepidation about the future. Furthermore, the WEF researchers (Schwab, 2012) commented, “The political brinkmanship in the United States continues to affect the outlook for the world’s largest economy” (p. 3). The comments by WEF researchers suggest that education pundits should turn their attention inward to government policymakers and bureaucrats instead of making fraudulent claims about educations.

Perhaps the most direct statement by WEF researchers (Schwab, 2012) of incompetence and ineptitude on the part of U.S. policymakers and bureaucrats was: “[S]ome weaknesses in particular areas have deepened since past assessments. The business community continues to be critical toward public and private institutions (41st). In particular, its trust in politicians is not strong (54th), perhaps not surprising in light of recent political disputes that threaten to push the country back into recession through automatic spending cuts. . . . A lack of macroeconomic stability continues to be the country’s greatest area of weakness, 111th, down from 90th last year.” (p. 21)

But alas, it seems that no matter how well our children perform academically, policymakers appear to be sabotaging the economy from within with poor planning and lack of attention to sustainability issues. The WEF researchers provided a foreboding warning to tone-deaf politicians (Schwab, 2012): “The United States shows middling results in both social and environmental sustainability, which results in a slightly lower score in the sustainability- adjusted GCI than in the GCI itself. The country’s social sustainability score is affected by increasing inequality and youth unemployment. However, it is the score in the environmental sustainability . . . that is a concern for the country’s sustainable prosperity.”(p. 60)

The one piece of data that calls into question pundits’ argument that public education is the cause of the economic dismantling of the U.S. was that only 6.8% of GCI survey respondents in the United States cited an inadequately educated workforce as a major concern for future economic growth, whereas almost three-times as many respondents were concerned with tax policy and inefficient government bureaucracy (Schwab, 2013, p. 382). Public education is not the cause of the economic issues faced by the U.S., our public representatives and appointed bureaucrats are the cause, but they seem determined to dismantle the system that has served the U.S. so well for decades.

 Other Indicators of Political Incompetence

The data presented in the 2013–2014 GCI report (Schwab, 2013) show that the United States ranked behind other industrial countries in areas that influence future economic growth—areas controlled by policymakers, not second-grade teachers or university professors. For example, the United States ranked 25th in protecting intellectual property rights behind such countries as Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The last time I checked, teachers and school administrators do not make patent policy.

The United States ranked 29th in diversion of public funds to corporations, friends, or private interests due to corruption, behind countries including Chile, Uruguay, and Rwanda. Is it that public school educators or parents do not spend enough time teaching ethics? Should we adopt the Rwandan system of schooling so as to secure our economic future? Not so fast, maybe we should first look to Iran and China for some ideas on how to improve trust in the political system. The United States ranked 50th for trust in politicians, behind Botswana, Iran, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and China (Schwab, 2013).

In the area of irregular payments and bribes, the United States placed 38th, behind Georgia, Rwanda, Bahrain, and Estonia (Schwab, 2013). A cursory review of the mainstream press and blogs provides ample evidence of bribery, diverting funds, nepotism, outright stealing in the Charter School sector – the darling of policymakers. Is it any wonder that a sector supported by and nestled into the laps of policymakers is devolving into an ethically feckless enterprise in some parts of the U.S.?

Even in the area of judicial independence, the United States ranked lower than one would expect, given our rhetoric about liberty and justice for all: 32nd, tied with Rwanda and Kuwait, but below Saudi Arabia, Botswana, South Africa, and Oman (Schwab, 2013). Would higher PISA rankings for U.S. students help to overcome that shortcoming?

U.S. government officials continue to fail the country in other ways. In the area of favoritism in decisions of government officials, the United States ranked 54th, behind Turkey, Iran, Liberia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Azerbaijan, and Indonesia—all countries that have been on the U.S. State Department travel watch list at one time or another. Nor is the U.S. government the bastion of transparent policy making, ranking 48th, behind China, Panama, Kazakhstan, and Armenia.

The United States fell to the 19th position in quality of infrastructure, behind Oman, Portugal, and Singapore. I consider the quality of the electric supply and roads important to economic success, but apparently policymakers do not because the United States ranked 30th, behind Slovenia, Czech Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Qatar. There are other indicators that influence economics that I can cite from the WEF (2013), but there is no need to belabor the point that educators do not control any of them.

 Are You Serious?

Perhaps policymakers and government bureaucrats should restore local control to U.S. public schools and allow community members to be the democratic overseers of the quality and finances like we have been since 1607. Corporatization, privatization, centralization, and the charter-ization of public education will produce only abuses of the public trust, and in the end, of children’s futures. Internationally harmonized data, visa-vie the Growth Competitiveness Index and disaggregated data from international tests suggest that public education is not the cause of economic issues in the U.S.

Public education is being used as the scapegoat for those who are raiding the public cookie jar and lining their pockets with the resources meant for children. The Common Core, uncommon core, national testing, international testing, or inter-planetary testing will not secure the future for our children and grandchildren. Those bankrupt initiatives will not fix our roads, give ethics to corrupt officials, feed or house our hungry and homeless children, or prevent inept policy making.

Policymakers’ and bureaucrats’ rankings on key areas of economic strength are obviously in need of attention and deserve closer scrutiny and oversight, and above all, accountability. Public school personnel are not failing the economy. Policymakers are failing public schools and society. Children residing in America deserve better.


Author Note:  Portions adapted from or directly quoted from Tienken (2013; 2014)


Ensor, L. (2013, July 1). Davies questions index that ranks SA’s competitiveness low. Business Day. Retrieved from http://www.bdlive.co.za/business/2013/07/01/davies-questions-index-that-ranks-sas-competitiveness-low

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, § 115, Stat. 1425 (2002).

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Zhao, Y. (2014). How does PISA put the world at risk (Part 3)? Creating illusory models of excellence. Zhaolearning.com.  Retrieved from http://zhaolearning.com/2014/03/23/how-does-pisa-put-the-world-at-risk-part-3-creating-illusory-models-of-excellence/

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