Everyone of late seems to be focusing on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): the first standardized assessment of student achievement across nations. Developed by the OECD, the PISA was introduced in 2003 and is administered every three years. In fact, U.S. high school freshmen and sophomores may be taking it right now.
In our current educational culture, concern about students’ academic achievement has reached a fever pitch. But immediately on the heels of any mention of American students’ academic performance comes the fear that they are not competitive with (read: better than) those students in other countries. We’ve been concerned specifically about our students’ academic competitiveness with Japanese students since I was in high school. And China has been on our radar for awhile as well. But Finland? I think even Scandinavians are similarly astounded.
I recently heard that the PISA is administered willy-nilly to American students, whereas other countries test only their “college ready” students. I’m not quite sure how a 15-year-old can be considered wholly ready for college, given that many students begin college at 17-19… But in any case, the OECD denies such sifting in its testing methodology.
To suggest otherwise seems like a massive case of sour grapes, in my opinion. The reality—that American students are not performing as well as we’d expect—has hit a national nerve. But America’s PISA scores cannot be blamed on test methodology or unit of analysis. Certainly, the scores of the elites—like students at Northside Prep, Jones, Payton, Young, etc.—are going to pull up the scores of the masses to produce a PISA score that hovers in the middle of the pack. Even in Chicago, the elites don’t reach 100 percent exceeding rates, and graduation rates are in fact below 90 percent at three selective enrollment high schools (Brooks, King, Lindblom), according to the latest data available on CPS.edu.
More pressing for the average Chicago parent/child is that admission into the SE high schools is incredibly fierce, with 14,000+ students vying for just 2,000 seats each year. And the number of applicants seems to go up every year. Much has been made about the inadequacies of the current system—but the fact remains that SE high schools are for the elite among the elite. I heard one educator call the practice, “skimming off the cream.”
To be honest, I am not sure that my kids will be among the elite of the elite. I’m not sure I’d want them to be. They’re smart, they’re curious, and they enjoy the version of elementary learning that they receive at Disney II. But so do thousands of their peers at other good schools across the system. It’s this likely reality that has led me to consider other avenues for my children’s secondary education. And not the kind of avenue that requires a moving truck. Ideally, my kids can attend their local Chicago public high school and build up the knowledge that will help them do well in college and in life.
Our local public high school is Carl Schurz. I believe—and more importantly, Dan Kramer, its principal—believes that it’s an ideal candidate for a community-led or community-supported rebirth. In fact, he launched this effort yesterday through an Arts Showcase, inviting neighbors, community leaders like myself in my role as Disney II PTA president, and local government officials to hear and see Schurz’s performing arts students. Admittedly, I am easily impressed. But I was impressed with the students’ drama scenes, which made me laughed and made me want to cry. I was impressed with the band playing Sousa marches in the library. And I was impressed by the teachers’ interest in and dedication to seeing their students succeed. A 9th grade piano class? The second longest continuously running orchestra in Illinois? Lit classes that cover grammar and liberal thinking? Except for the piano, it sounds a lot like my suburban high school.
Some in my party argued that it was a masterful display of PR that didn’t address major issues* associated with the school. But it left me with the impression that Schurz could be a viable option for my children and their neighborhood peers. I mean, The Boy is in third grade; by my math, that means that I have about 4-5 years to see Schurz thrive. I think JacquelineEdelberg managed to change Nettelhorst’s image among parents in their well-heeled Lakeview neighborhood within the same span of time.
* The most crucial issue at Schurz is about gangs. Aside from the lawsuit against the former principal of Schurz, Mary Ann Folino, I couldn’t find much information online about the problem, but that’s something Dan Kramer and his team are going to have to address.