Bread and Circuses

Panem et circenses in the original Latin. “Bread and Circuses”.  The Satires are a collection of satirical poems by Roman authors which allowed them to cleverly critique the social and political climate of their time.  Panem et circenses is a line from Satire X that refers to the Caesar’s technique of using entertainment to distract the public from more important matters.  If you occasionally hand out free bread and focus the mob’s attention on the gladiators struggling for survival in the arena, the working class tends to forget that many of them live in abject poverty and the empire is crumbling.

Last April, I published a post called the Workforce Farce wherein I expressed my belief that basing our national educational goals primarily on global competitiveness was misguided.   Yesterday, and much to my delight, I received the September 14th issue of Education Week and found a commentary on the back page that took my argument one step further.  Entitled, International Test Scores, Irrelevant Policies, the article written by George Washington University Professor of Education Policy, Iris C. Rotberg, outlines several key points deconstructing the myth that our rankings on international math and science tests are a valid and reliable measure of our education system and our current and future ability to build and sustain a competitive economy.  Rotberg clearly highlights that this supposition is unsupported by evidence.

As I alluded to last April and as Rotberg eloquently points out, “…the rhetoric has assumed that test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness, yet the data for industrialized countries consistently show this assumption to be unwarranted.”  The World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Report ranks the United States fourth behind Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore.  Interestingly enough, many of the countries that rank higher on international test scores like the PISA, rank lower than the U.S. in competitiveness.”

Surprisingly,  several evidence based conclusions seem to have been ignored.  The first is that there is a strong negative correlation between student performance and both family poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools.  A factor many legislators don’t want to talk about.  Poverty in America effecting our schools!  That’s certainly persona non grata on the campaign trail.  Additionally, Rotberg states that basing future economic trends on test scores is clearly erroneous when other variables such as outsourcing to gain access to lower wage employees, tax rates and other business incentives, retirement costs, and other variables clearly have a greater impact on our economic engine.  I find it hard to believe that our Fortune 500 CEO’s continue to decry the ills of our education system while simultaneously shipping jobs overseas, yet somehow they manage it.  Do they think the education systems in China, Mexico and Indonesia are better than ours?  They obviously aren’t saying looking at the test scores in those countries.

Well what about our dwindling supply of engineers?  Our high-tech companies can’t find enough to staff their R&D departments…right?  Once again as Rotberg says that when you look at the data you see a different picture, “The fact is the United States has both a large pool of students with the academic credentials needed to enter science and engineering fields and an ample supply – and sometimes an oversupply – to meet the labor market demand. When companies claim that they need to hire from other countries because they cannot find qualified U.S. graduates, it is more likely that they cannot find them at the wages they would prefer to pay and find it cheaper to out-source.  This is not the fault of our international test-score rankings or the training of U.S. scientists and engineers.”

So what’s a legislator to do when faced with a complex problem that involves a wide range of economic related variables and touchy tax and wage related issues.  Yikes!…explaining that to the mob could get difficult.  Bread and Circuses of course.  Let’s blame the education system.  They’re an easy target.  We can heap on accountability measures under the guise of high expectations and our failing economy and set schools up to fail.  Then we can unequivocally state the reason our economy is failing is low test scores.  Panem et circenses

The frustrating part is that a growing body of research has shown that accountability measures have not resulted in any real improvement in student learning.  In fact, as Rotberg states, many of the countries that the U.S. holds as examples of high test scores, such as Finland and Japan, specifically discourage mandated accountability measures.  If you were wondering where the Road to Abilene led, well now you know…. to the circus.  You paid for the bread, you might as well watch the clowns.

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About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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One Response to Bread and Circuses

  1. Ana Cuprill says:

    “Do they think the education systems in China, Mexico and Indonesia are better than ours?” They aren’t looking for education – just cheap labor.

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