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Missing the trees while gazing at the forest?

Another study has come out indicating that one way to improve American children’s scores on international tests is by paying them.  (See:  Although it is getting attention, this is not a new idea – even a quick Google pops up similar findings going back more than a decade with various talking head recommendations going and coming around every few years.  This particular study, carried out by economists, also looked at what happens when you try the same intervention and pay children in Shanghai.  The answer: not much.  The hopeful interpretation given for the study is: American children aren’t necessarily less well prepared educationally – they’re just unmotivated.  And why should they be?  International comparison tests have almost no meaning for American children.  There are no adverse consequences for performing less well than you are able.  If your individual score on such an international exam determined your international competitiveness for college and later employment – well, there might be a bit more motivation to perform.

But the interpretable focus given this study seems to me to be looking at the wrong results.  What is more noticeable to my eyes is the relatively tight set of scores from each of the three schools in Shanghai versus the incredible wide spread of scores for the American schools.  Only one of the American groups (school 3 Honors) scored even close the Shanghai schools regardless of whether the test-takers were incentivized or not.  When international comparison tests are reporting pooled averages, variances matter.

To me, the real issue is why there are schools where children are scoring in the single digits – even when they are paid to perform.  Here I worry that knowledge really is the problem, not motivation.  We should worry less about bribing kids to move their score a point or two and worry more about the children we are seriously leaving behind.