Misappropriation of Line Graphs

Posted on June 14, 2011


One of my favorite things to do – when I am not reading online articles or reading Facebook updates or reading other people’s blogs – is to do in-depth research on political, cultural, and social trends.

As an a career educator, one of my primary areas of interest is how we educate American students and the current state of the youth of our nation.

I spend hours each week reading about the educational trends in our nation.

I began to notice a trend: graphs.

There’s a reason why I love graphs.  You can use them to basically lie.  Manipulate the source to your own benefit.

So here’s how I’m about to manipulate these sources.

Since 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been examining the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students in the 34 major countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In 2000, the United States was ranked 15th in reading literacy with a score of 504 points.  That year, Finland ranked #1 with a reading literacy score of 546 points.  In the most recent rankings, the United States was ranked 17th with a score of 500 points (citation).

Although, technically a statistical blip, a drop in scores could also signify a problem in reading literacy.  During that same time span, Poland jumped from 23rd to 15th in reading literacy with a 21 point increase.  Switzerland moved from 17th to 14th with only a 7 point increase.

Although the United States has shown improvement in PISA scores in both math and sciences in the same span of time, the ranking against other countries has fallen significantly.  The US has gone from being a below-average 24th in math to ranking 30th out of 34 countries.  The science ranking has also fallen, although less significantly, from 21st to 23rd.

Although there are conflicting reports on the OECD’s PISA analysis, most people agree on one thing: America is slipping behind other countries.  This is a major cause of concern for the Obama administration who is trying to get this new education reform rolling.

“This is an absolute wake-up call for America,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education” (citation).

Let’s pause for a second and put a little perspective on this.

Why exactly is it bad that we rank fair to middling on these assessments?  Do we honestly believe that we should be ranked higher?  Is there some sort of egotistical attitude we have that makes us believe we should be top 10 in these categories?  Why can’t we just accept the fact that we are of average intelligence?

The statistics indicate we probably are.  While countries in the Asian continents are increasing scores and performance, we continue to slip in almost all areas, including high school graduation rates and college graduation rates.

Between 1995 and 2008, for example, the United States slipped from ranking second in college graduation rates to 13th, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Paris-based organization that develops and administers the PISA exam. Of 34 OECD countries, only 8 have a lower high school graduation rate (citation).

But, what exactly is to blame on the slip in ranking and performance of our nation’s school children?

Many want to point to cuts in spending on education.  People claim that while states are cutting funding to education, tests scores around the nation are falling when compared to the rest of world.

It is true that the the great average is upon us.  No matter how often and how much we test, the nation tends to remain relatively flat.  For the past decade, SAT scores have remained just around 500 per section, despite the number of SAT test takers increasing significantly.  Furthermore, there are more people who are now taking the test multiple times.

Yet, while we remain flat, the rest of the world seems to be passing us by.  This is why the ranking has continued to fall.

However, do we believe that education spending is to blame?

If we look at inflation-adjusted spending per pupil, we are in fact increasing spending in education.  In fact, since 2000, it seems as if we’ve increased spending by nearly $2000 to just over $11,000 per pupil (citation).

Yet, despite our increased spending, our high school graduates are continuing to struggle.

How much are we spending?  When compared to other OECD countries, we are in fact ranked 2nd to Turkey Switzerland in per-pupil spending overall.

So what kind of return on our investment are we receiving?

Not much.

And this is where I begin to draw connections.

If you take a look back at the first graph of the post, you’ll notice that childhood obesity has increased in the United States significantly.  Since 1980, our education spending has increased nearly four-fold, while our percentage of overweight children has done nearly the same.

Spend more on education = Lower test scores and more obese children.

Wait, this gets even better.

If our test scores keep dropping, how could that affect our economy?

According to some, a decline in test scores could cripple the economy (citation).  After all, if we’re bad at math, how can we figure out how to be fiscally responsible?

Again, if you look at the chart above, you can see the trend of our national debt.  It looks exactly like the same chart for obesity, and is in direct inverse proportion to our OECD ranking in education and math.

The more we spend on education, the fatter and dumber we become, and the more we go into debt.

So, Sohnsaengnim, what exactly are you saying?

I’m suggesting that if we really want to improve our economy, reduce obesity in our children, and increase our educational preparedness, we need a complete overhaul of our educational policy.

We need to reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay, move away from standardized testing and teaching to the test, increase brain food lunch options, and take a real hard look at our values and attitudes to other countries.

I could offer real suggestions, but in the spirit of an election campaign year, I’ve decided to pander to the masses by giving one-line solutions that will end up being 500 page reform bills.

If you’d like to stroke my ego, just hit the “like” button below and I’ll start my campaign to ask Obama to appoint me the next U.S. Secretary of Education.