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Study: Comparing U.S. education to others can backfire

K-12 schools in the United States are often criticized for falling behind their counterparts in other countries, but a new Cornell study suggests that this "negative spin" does not increase public support for spending more to improve the nation's schools.

Presidential hopefuls, local school board candidates and even companies like Exxon Mobil stress the need to have the best education system in the world to be competitive in the global economy. President Barack Obama's education issue webpage, for example, begins with the statement, "To prepare Americans for the jobs of the future and help restore middle-class security, we have to out-educate the world, and that starts with the school system." And, in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney unveiled a five-point jobs plan for 70 million television viewers. Romney presented "No. 3" as "Make sure our people have the skills they need to succeed and the best schools in the world. We're a far way from that now."

"But my research concludes that comments such as Romney's erode support for public schools and decrease interest in spending additional money to improve them," said Stephen Morgan, Cornell professor of sociology and lead author of the study "The Consequences of International Comparisons for Public Support of K-12 Education," published in the latest issue of the journal Educational Researcher. Morgan discussed his findings at an Oct. 18 journalists-only luncheon at Cornell's Wolpe Center in Washington, D.C.

With results from a randomized experiment on a nationally representative sample of adults (aged 18 to 93), the study concludes that statements such as these convince approximately 7 percent of adults to lower their grades for public schools in their own communities from "A" or "B" to "C," "D" or "fail." And, when asked whether we spend enough money on improving the nation's schools, a similar percentage of respondents shifted from the position that we spend "too little" toward "about the right amount" or "too much." Overall, "people think worse of their schools, but there is no evidence that they are then convinced to spend more money to fix them," said Morgan.

The percentage of the national sample that is shifted by international competitiveness concerns may be modest, "but 7 percent could be enough to flip the outcome of a school levy vote or a local election," said Morgan.

He said that international comparisons shouldn't necessarily be avoided altogether, especially by candidates or interest groups that favor cost-neutral reforms. And, he said, they are probably effective in generating interest in education reform in general.

"I'd guess that they are partly responsible for convincing some of my own students to care about educational reform and to apply to programs like Teach For America," said Morgan.


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