Thursday, March 29, 2012

Assailed Teacher: Teachers Disgruntled

by The Assailed Teacher
The end of March always seems to wreck the neves of teachers. We have been without a day off for almost a month, which is a long time in the world of education. Sometimes the stress has a tendency to pile up by the this time of year, leading to an increased amount of teacher venting.
A colleague of mine today explained that he could not keep up working in a system that does appreciate it workers.
A few days ago, another colleague of mine wrote this message via Facebook (come get me, Walcott). I thought it warranted its own post, since it nicely expresses things that many others are surely feeling:
The funny thing is that in the "real" world we would never ask a cardiologist to perform brain surgery. It would be a recipe for disaster, but in the educational world high school teachers are asked to get kids with 3rd grade reading levels through a high school level regents class. Math teachers are asked to teach literacy to their students. Why? How did a freshman in high school with a third grade reading level reach a regents level science class?
Twenty years ago there were fewer administrators, fewer superintendents thus more money was spent in the classroom. Now educational budgets are getting chopped but yet more 6 figure - out of the classroom positions - exist than ever before. So let's evaluate how well a cardiologist performs brain surgery shall we. I wonder how that will turn out? Hmmm It doesn't take a neurosurgeon to see this end badly.
And for what? To justify the salaries of these glorified positions? To justify a policy that has been in placed almost a decade now and is obviously failing? What if for every school that closes a superintendent loses their job? Aren't these schools failing under their watch?
If the quality of Bloomberg's high school diploma is so high why are colleges increasing the number of remedial courses for incoming freshman?
The mayor, the superintendent have completely lost sight at the problem. 13 years ago when I taught and a student failed my class that student was in the principal's office with their parent explaining why they failed and how they will fix it. Now a student fails and the teacher is in the office trying to explain why they fail. Did they fail b/c there was no rubric on the wall? Or b/c the teacher did not have a strong Do Now? Or maybe they failed because the teacher did not implement the proper use of Cornell notes. To that I say, you know what they do not do at Cornell? Yup cornell notes.
Thirteen years ago administrators and teachers were not this divided, they worked together and at the end of the day despite their differences it was understood they had each others back.
The system is so focused on meaningless numbers they have lost sight of the people behind the numbers, the students. I recently told my students (a group of juniors with freshman credits) that they treat their grade like the D.O.E. treats them. "You kids want your 65 but have forgotten what it means to earn a 65, or an 85 and dare I say a 55. Just like the D.O.E. wants it's data but has completely lost sight of the person behind the data". They have completely devalued education. What it means to educate. In order for true growth to occur a person must learn responsibility and most experience failure, thus learning from their mistakes. How is a student going to learn responsibility when the teacher is responsible for that student's irresponsibility. How is a system going to grow when they don't see passed their ego's to admit their mistakes.
Education has lost it's integrity, it's unity. It will never succeed unless we stop dividing the roles and come back to a united front putting the kids first and the numbers second.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Times Union Fred LeBrun: What is it Cuomo is hiding?

Andrew Cuomo
Fred LeBrun, Commentary
Published 08:41 p.m., Saturday, March 24, 2012
re-posted from

With his failure to open to public scrutiny his years of records and correspondence as state attorney general, our governor invites us to wonder what it is he has to hide.

The Times Union's Jimmy Vielkind last week wrote that 15 months after leaving behind the state's top lawyer job, only a trickle of the papers, correspondence and documents produced during those years, about 10 boxes, have found their way to the State Archives, where by law all of the AG's papers are supposed to wind up — the public papers of an elected official. Access to even that small cache has been slow in coming through repeated delays of a routine Freedom of Information request. The bulk of those papers is nowhere in sight.

By contrast, after Eliot Spitzer became governor, within a few months of taking office, 919 boxes from his years as AG were plopped into the archives, where they are grist for perusal and reflection today. If you want to know who Spitzer's jogging partners were during his AG tenure, a bonafide researcher or accredited reporter can do that. More importantly, you can also find background and correspondence on a vast array of public policy questions and legal issues.

Spitzer is a crucial comparison because Cuomo, in failing to release his records, seems to be hiding behind a thin cover provided by an agreement between the state archives and the AG's office, an agreement made during the Spitzer years. It pertains to justifiably excluding from public view privileged lawyer-client material. So arguably everything has to be sifted through to pull those records out. But that's largely a dodge, as Spitzer's 919 boxes clearly prove. Spitzer was as affected by that agreement as Cuomo.

So why are we suspicious of Andrew Cuomo in this matter?

Because of the way he does business. The governor is thoroughly steeped in hypocrisy when it comes to transparency. The more he utters the word, the less he pays attention to it. It comes as no surprise that the independent Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., ranks New York 36th among the states in public accountability. Cuomo's is the least transparent, most micromanaged New York gubernatorial administration in memory. Combine that with a style that would be charitably called ruthless assertiveness, and we have every reason to be suspicious.

After all, during the Spitzer and Paterson years an ambitious and driven Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was in the shadows and hovering around the edges of some of the most mercurial times state government has ever experienced.

By nature, Cuomo is not a politician who watches passively as the scene drifts by. For better or worse — and we've seen both — he's an action figure, prone to intrusion.

Take, for example, the Troopergate investigation and its aftermath. AG Cuomo was given a broad mandate by Governor Spitzer to investigate who if anybody did wrong in that affair, a mandate the AG narrowed mostly to an investigation of Spitzer and his staff. Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's misuse of public resources for personal and political gain, the other side of the issue, seemed to get a lot less scrutiny than Spitzer. Cynics at the time, and since, have suggested that was because Andrew Cuomo was not running for Senate Majority Leader. Then there were two investigations of Governor Paterson by Judith Kaye, retired chief judge of the Court of Appeals. Did Cuomo try to insert himself into those? How much of Paterson's administration was actually being run, or influenced, by Cuomo's office, which was also the suspicion at the time.

Are there backstories and revelations that shed light on Andrew Cuomo's motivations and actions in those archives? That's a wide-open maybe. We'll never know until we have a chance to look. Logically, both a political officer and a legal one will have sifted through and removed anything embarrassing or too enlightening in those archives before they are placed on the State Museum storage shelves. There's hardly any way to prevent that, no matter what the law is. But considering the volumes of material involved, there's always a chance something could slip through that would raise eyebrows and hard questions. I suspect that is at the heart of Cuomo's reluctance.

When there's lots to hide, you can't too careful. When there's nothing to hide, bring in the sunshine.

Should Cuomo make a run at the presidency — and I have no doubt he will make every effort to do so — he knows he can expect the national media, political bloggers, political dirty tricksters and others to descend on Albany for whatever scraps they can find. As it should be.

Andrew Cuomo really hasn't been vetted by the media in recent times. Thanks to a senior moment by the Republican party offering us Carl Paladino as an alternative, Cuomo was essentially unchallenged and unscrutinized in his carefully orchestrated run for the governorship. Then he went into an equally well-orchestrated honeymoon with the public.

But eventually, when New Yorkers and the rest of the country are forced to ponder whether we want this man as president, that will change. Those AG-year papers and documents would be a great place to start our deliberations. • 518-454-5453

Cuomo papers as attorney general still denied public
A request to review Gov. Andrew Cuomo's records as attorney general is delayed

By Jimmy Vielkind
Published 11:18 p.m., Wednesday, March 21, 2012

ALBANY — Looking for records from Andrew Cuomo's tenure as attorney general? Good luck.
Fifteen months after leaving the Department of Law, Cuomo has sent almost nothing to the State Archives, designated by state law as the final resting place for every attorney general's papers.
The state Education Department, which oversees the archives, has inexplicably delayed the Times Union's request to review what three people familiar with the matter said are 10 boxes of records, or about a dozen cubic feet.

That volume stands in sharp contrast to the way Cuomo's predecessors handled the process. Eliot Spitzer has sent 919 boxes to the archives, detailing daily appointments — the Bar Mitzvahs he attended, the names of his early-morning jogging partners — as well as files on important state legal issues and correspondence from his two terms as attorney general. They were mostly transferred in the opening months of 2007, just after Spitzer became governor, according to a former Spitzer administration officials and Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the Education Department
Burman refused to say how many boxes have arrived from Cuomo's tenure or what they contain, saying staffers are "still cataloguing the materials," sent most recently in June.

While politicians may routinely parse their words and view truth elastically, the records produced by the grind of government paint an un-spun picture of official tenure for the public and, eventually, for historians. In some instances, such papers have been political liabilities for candidates seeking higher office, such that presidential aspirants from Mitt Romney to Howard Dean have worked to destroy or limit access to them.

The actions of Cuomo, who pundits mention as a possible presidential contender in 2016, seem to contradict his pledge to run an administration that is "the most transparent and accountable in state history."

Josh Vlasto, the governor's spokesman, said: "Records are being compiled and transferred as appropriate."

The Times Union reported last week that some of Cuomo's records sought under the Freedom of Information Law were discarded, and the request closed, as he ascended from attorney general to governor in 2010. The administration had delayed other requests lodged under FOIL, but says it is now current.

On Tuesday, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity ranked New York 36th among the states for public accountability, giving it a "D" grade. Thursday, a slate of good-government groups will call for greater transparency.

"What we see at all levels of government is a human desire to work in privacy, but that's not what the public expects from public servants," Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner said.
State law requires agencies to send materials "made or received ... in connection with the transaction of public business" to the State Archives, located above the State Museum. But unlike the federal government and some other states, these requirements do not apply to gubernatorial administrations — something State Archivist Christine Ward has pushed to change.

Many governors have placed their papers in private repositories where it's easier to control access. The Legislature passed a bill in 2010 that would have required exiting governors to turn over their papers, but Gov. David Paterson vetoed it, citing carve outs in the law that would have granted legislators special access.

He signed an executive order creating a records management plan that has been partially implemented. After an earlier deal to use $250,000 in taxpayer funds to send his papers to Cornell University fell apart, Paterson's records are slowly wending their way to the archives.
Paterson's chief counsel, Peter Kiernan, told the Times Union that the veto came after lobbying from Cuomo's incoming team.

"Gov. Paterson wasn't going to sign (the records bill) in the form that it was given to us, but did ask me to negotiate with the legislative sponsors to see if we could come up with an acceptable version. That was ongoing, and I think we might have arrived at a version that was acceptable although there were significant differences," said Kiernan, now in private legal practice. "But because of the request of representatives for the governor-elect, Governor Paterson vetoed it."

Vlasto denied that any lobbying took place, but two other sources familiar with the matter confirmed Kiernan's account. As attorney general, Cuomo investigated Spitzer, Paterson and several of their aides.
Cuomo has not yet formalized a records retention policy, which will detail what gets preserved and what is thrown away. Vlasto said the administration "is in the process of finalizing a broad record retention policy that will be in place well before the Governor's predecessors implemented any such policy."
Cuomo also created Citizen Connects, a website that posts records of his daily calendar online and has been a forum for Internet chats with the governor and other administration officials. As a result of a 2011 government ethics law, the existing "Project Sunlight" website will be expanded.

Some of the agency records that now go to the archives are sensitive enough to be redacted from the general public — files on mental patients who resided in state facilities, for example. Attorneys in the Department of Law have argued that some of its material is covered by attorney-client privilege and should be similarly guarded.

In 2006, Ward and an aide to then-Attorney General Spitzer signed a memorandum of understanding creating a special process for accessing the department's papers, in which records-seekers follow the process and restrictions of the Freedom of Information Law, which applies to all agency records before they are sent to the archives. Since the archivists were ill-equipped to assess what was legally exempt, the Department of Law reviews the requests.

The Times Union filed a FOIL request for Cuomo's records on Jan. 9, and was promised a reply by Feb. 15. None has arrived.
Asked to explain the delay, Burman said, "We can't comment on a pending FOIL request." • 518-454-5081 • @JimmyVielkind

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Charter Schools Can Hurt

Lucinda Rosenfeld

MY daughter is a kindergarten pupil at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. She started there in September, and she loves everything about it: her friends, her teachers and her school-related activities, like Girl Scouts. Intense excitement accompanied both the post office project earlier this year and the Halloween Day Characters Parade, in which her class dressed up as the Three Little Pigs.
A few weeks ago, for three days in a row starting at 3 p.m., a representative from the Success Academy charter school that is scheduled to open this fall in adjacent Cobble Hill stood outside the doors of P.S. 261, handing out fliers and attempting to recruit its students. On day two, outraged teachers asked the man to leave. He refused. On day three, a loose group of teachers, parents and students occupied the sidewalk next to him. Heated words were exchanged. It wasn’t until the next day, when a schoolwide rally unfolded in the front yard — and cameras from NY1 arrived — that the representative vanished. I can’t help wondering if this is the educational future that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had in mind when, in his State of the City address earlier this year, he called for 50 new charter schools to open in the next two years.
Here in the Brownstone Belt, most elementary schools are overwhelmingly populated either by poor minorities or middle- to upper-middle-class whites. P.S. 261 is one of a minority of Brooklyn primary schools that manages to be truly diverse — racially, ethnically and economically. While 35 percent of its student body qualifies for free lunch, it also attracts and retains children from professional families of all races and creeds, who work in law, media and the arts.
If Success Academy succeeds in luring away even a fraction of 261’s students, however, it could well create a snowball effect in which its middle-class population ends up fleeing. In New York City, school budgets are determined in part by the number of students who attend. So fewer kids at P.S. 261 would mean less money for the principal to spend on everything from teachers to class trips.
At the moment, P.S. 261 is doing pretty well. Just recently, the Trust for Public Land selected the school to have its playground renovated, while a science teacher, Carmelo Piazza (otherwise known as “Carmelo the Science Fellow,” a Brooklyn legend in his own right), received a $10,000 grant from AT&T to refurbish his lab, which will soon be filled with small reptiles.
For reasons understood only by the statistics-mad New York City Department of Education, P.S. 261 recently received a letter grade of “C.” It was also designated as a “school in need of improvement.” But so far, in my book, considering budget cuts that have wiped out close to a million dollars in three years and forced the school library to close for lack of a librarian, the place deserves an A or A-minus.
Other schools nearby could use help as well. Instead of sending taxpayer funds to another Success Academy, why not use that same money to try to turn some of Brooklyn’s less popular elementary schools into institutions that, like P.S. 261, attract parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum? In studies, a mix of rich and poor has been shown to lift up those at the bottom of the economic pile. As for the children of professional families, it’s surely better for them not to spend their entire lives around people exactly like them.
The apparent reason for opening a charter school in a gentrified neighborhood like Cobble Hill (or the Upper West Side, where a Success Academy opened last year) is to bring more middle-class and upper-middle-class families into the publicly funded charter system. But if the Success Academy succeeds in its mission, it could well end up destroying schools like P.S. 261 that already succeed in attracting these families. My daughter’s new friends include the children of both marketing executives and maintenance workers. At drop-off recently, I watched as she and a friend who lives in a nearby housing project walked hand in hand down the hall. In its promise of a more just world, the sight made me almost teary-eyed. I wonder how much longer those kinds of scenes will prevail.
The communities of Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill overwhelmingly do not support a charter in the neighborhood. (The same is true in Williamsburg, where, despite a huge outcry, another Success Academy was recently rubber-stamped.) This has been made abundantly clear at both community meetings and those for the Panel for Educational Policy. Perhaps the mayor believes he knows better than the thousands of families who have come out to voice their opposition. But then, wasn’t the whole point of the “school choice” movement to give power back to the parents?
There’s nothing wrong with providing families with options. When charters open in their own privately financed, state-of-the-art buildings in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where they’re welcomed by the community, there may be reasons to celebrate. But when charters co-locate in mixed-income areas, choice is only half the story.
The existing schools in which they set up shop suffer both in terms of resources (only so many kids can fit in the lunchroom at one time) and morale. If the Cobble Hill Success Academy opens as planned in the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, which also houses a second high school and a special-needs program, in five years the building will be at 108 percent capacity — unless, of course, the other schools shrivel up and die.
Call us paranoid, but parents like me are starting to wonder whether Mayor Bloomberg’s larger goal isn’t to privatize the entire New York City public school system. Why else would he be foisting charters on communities that don’t want them? And how else can he justify diverting tax dollars to organizations that employ people to blanket neighborhoods with advertisements and try to poach students from public schools that are already thriving?
Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of “I’m So Happy for You.”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Teacher With Excellent Ratings Tears Down The Teacher Data Reports

Teachers campaign against system that gave them high scores

Maribeth Whitehouse
The most credible critics of the city’s Teacher Data Reports are those with the highest scores.
That’s the outlook of a small band of 99th-percentilers who are signing on to a statement that argues that measuring teacher effectiveness according to students’ test scores “will, in the long run, result in less classroom creativity and more shallow, test-focused instruction.”
The statement was penned by Maribeth Whitehouse, an eight-year middle school teacher in the South Bronx. She reached out by email to other teachers who, like her, had pulled a top rating on the city’s value-added algorithm when Teacher Data Reports were released last month. So far, about a dozen teachers who scored 99s have added their names, and Whitehouse said she expects others to join them. They join a deafening chorus of critics of the TDRs who include 80 percent of New Yorkers, according to poll results released today.
In the Community section today, Whitehouse explains her decision to strike out against the metric that said she was “far above average.” She writes:
I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile.
Read Whitehouse’s complete Community section piece, “Measuring My Value.” The full statement being circulated among teachers with value-added scores in the 99th percentile is below.
We, the undersigned, were ranked in the 99th percentile on the recently released Teacher Data Reports in New York City.
We believe these data are out-dated, invalid and inaccurate with unacceptable margins of error.
We believe reliable evidence of authentic teaching and learning cannot be derived from standardized test results.
We believe the publishing of these data will, in the long run, result in less classroom creativity and more shallow, test-focused instruction incapable of developing citizens who can think critically.
We believe the publishing of these data has proven demoralizing and humiliating and that media stories which portray some teachers as “the best” and others as “the worst” are incendiary, invidious and irresponsible.
We believe neither student nor teacher excellence can be achieved or maintained in an atmosphere of fear and degradation.
We believe teaching is a complex profession, at least as much art as science, requiring intricate multi-faceted assessments for development.

Measuring My Value

I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile.
As the first notes of congratulations began to arrive in my inbox, I understood that people meant well, yet I felt annoyed that anybody would and could delve into my professional life. Notably, I also felt grateful that my numbers would not force me to ashamedly try to explain them away. I was keenly aware that the rope that would have me swinging back and forth in jubilation could just as easily have been wrapped around my neck in humiliation. I felt sickened by the numbers next to the names of my colleagues who I know to be hardworking. I wrote back to those who sent their well wishes, disavowing the data and explaining that the so called “evidence” meant nothing because it could not measure that which makes a teacher valuable.
Now in my ninth year in the classroom, I understand the art of teaching, that is, those things not measurable by multiple-choice questions or by assessors armed with clipboards and checklists who believe the breadth and depth of learning in my room is revealed by the freshness of my bulletin board or the sheer quantity of newsprint hanging from my walls. I could teach in a hut with a dirt floor and be an excellent teacher because what makes me excellent is, in large part, an unquantifiable aesthetic that cannot be captured by a mathematical procedure. Inspiring students, giving them something to think about long after the school day is over, pushing and poking them to be their best selves, nurturing wisdom, stimulating passionate efforts, assisting discovery, facilitating connections, determining when to lead, guide or let go — these things cannot be found using an algorithm.
Armed with this belief about teaching and the positive responses of those I loved and valued, I reached out to other teachers in the 99th percentile to see if they felt the same. Many of them did and a group of us have signed a statement renouncing the data’s usefulness and publication.
Still for all the motivating anger I felt, I also felt demoralized and quite simply sad. The data had no power to prove my worth, yet, since it was being used for political purposes and to misinform the public, the data did have the power to make me feel worthless. And that is when a very unlikely visitor reminded me of the true value that I add to my students’ lives.

A wonderful hallmark of my brief teaching career has been a constant flow of former students who come back to visit me. I can always count on the previous year’s crop to return but last week a student whom I hadn’t seen since my first year came by.  Lena was the type of student a teacher could never forget and not for any positive reasons. She presented a world of problems at a time when I had the fewest skills to deal with them.  She was angry, oppositional, violent and absent a lot. She was the first student to call me a “bitch.” Once she was so mad about something, she put her fist through a glass partition at school. Another time, she and a fellow student got into a fight, which led to a suspension after she hit a police officer who had tried to break it up. And since teaching can generate wildly conflicting emotions, it should come as no surprise that I had loved this girl, prayed for this girl and had also been downright grateful when this girl was not in attendance.
I wondered if my face betrayed all these emotions when I saw her standing in my doorway. She was a bit taller and fuller in the face but otherwise unchanged. We exchanged a long, strong hug in front of my current students. I felt like crying as I thought to myself, “She’s still alive” (something I had wondered about many times over the years). She said she had business nearby but couldn’t miss her chance to see her “favorite teacher.” It was the use of that phrase that filled my eyes with tears. A veteran teacher once said to me, “All you can do is plant seeds. You may never know whether or not they grow.” Her words manifested themselves before me as I looked at this “seed” I had been uncertain would grow. Lena is going to school to become a dental hygienist. She has a 3-year-old daughter and reported that overall things are going well for her. I know there is more to her story that she chose not to share. I know her life is not perfect but still she was alive and working toward a stable future and quite frankly that is more than I had expected. On top of that, to have her call me her “favorite teacher,” well — that was unbelievable given how incompetent I was my first year, how troublesome she had been, and how often we butted heads. We spoke a bit longer and before she left, I tried to hug her long enough to last awhile, as if the strength of my embrace could shield her from trouble. I want so many good things for her.
After Lena had gone, I turned to my current group and said, “Teachers don’t get paid a lot, but when students come back to visit it’s like getting an extra paycheck. I want you to remember that when you are walking by this school one day. Come up to see me; it does my heart good. And to have Lena say that I was her ‘favorite teacher’ — well, that is why I work so hard, because 30 years from now when you have your own children and see me on the subway, I want you to say, ‘You see that woman. She was the best teacher I ever had.’” And as I stood there before my students, having made this confession, generous voice after generous voice said, “I’ll come back to see you, Mrs. Whitehouse.” For a little while, we were all a bit verklempt, me most of all for having been shown my true value.
Figure out a way to put that in an algorithm and perhaps I will accept it as providing some relevant evidence about the value I add to a classroom. Until then, keep your 99th-percentile rating. I prefer a letter of recommendation from one of my students.
Maribeth Whitehouse is a special education teacher at IS 190 in the Bronx. She is in her ninth year of teaching eighth grade.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thomas L. Friedman On Taiwan, The Luckiest People In The World

Pass The Books. Hold The Oil
by Thomas L. Friedman, NY TIMES

EVERY so often someone asks me: “What’s your favorite country, other than your own?”

I’ve always had the same answer: Taiwan. “Taiwan? Why Taiwan?” people ask.

Very simple: Because Taiwan is a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off of — it even has to import sand and gravel from China for construction — yet it has the fourth-largest financial reserves in the world. Because rather than digging in the ground and mining whatever comes up, Taiwan has mined its 23 million people, their talent, energy and intelligence — men and women. I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests, no diamonds, no gold, just a few small deposits of coal and natural gas — and because of that you developed the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills, which turns out to be the most valuable and only truly renewable resource in the world today. How did you get so lucky?”

That, at least, was my gut instinct. But now we have proof.
A team from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., has just come out with a fascinating little study mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam — which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries — and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country. In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?
 The results indicated that there was a “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population,” said Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA exams for the O.E.C.D. “This is a global pattern that holds across 65 countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment.” Oil and PISA don’t mix. (See the data map at:
As the Bible notes, added Schleicher, “Moses arduously led the Jews for 40 years through the desert — just to bring them to the only country in the Middle East that had no oil. But Moses may have gotten it right, after all. Today, Israel has one of the most innovative economies, and its population enjoys a standard of living most of the oil-rich countries in the region are not able to offer.”
So hold the oil, and pass the books. According to Schleicher, in the latest PISA results, students in Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan stand out as having high PISA scores and few natural resources, while Qatar and Kazakhstan stand out as having the highest oil rents and the lowest PISA scores. (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria stood out the same way in a similar 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss, test, while, interestingly, students from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — also Middle East states with few natural resources — scored better.) Also lagging in recent PISA scores, though, were students in many of the resource-rich countries of Latin America, like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Africa was not tested. Canada, Australia and Norway, also countries with high levels of natural resources, still score well on PISA, in large part, argues Schleicher, because all three countries have established deliberate policies of saving and investing these resource rents, and not just consuming them.
Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students. “Today’s learning outcomes at school,” says Schleicher, “are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.”
Economists have long known about “Dutch disease,” which happens when a country becomes so dependent on exporting natural resources that its currency soars in value and, as a result, its domestic manufacturing gets crushed as cheap imports flood in and exports become too expensive. What the PISA team is revealing is a related disease: societies that get addicted to their natural resources seem to develop parents and young people who lose some of the instincts, habits and incentives for doing homework and honing skills.
By, contrast, says Schleicher, “in countries with little in the way of natural resources — Finland, Singapore or Japan — education has strong outcomes and a high status, at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills and that these depend on the quality of education. ... Every parent and child in these countries knows that skills will decide the life chances of the child and nothing else is going to rescue them, so they build a whole culture and education system around it.”
Or as my Indian-American friend K. R. Sridhar, the founder of the Silicon Valley fuel-cell company Bloom Energy, likes to say, “When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful.”
That’s why the foreign countries with the most companies listed on the Nasdaq are Israel, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, South Korea and Singapore — none of which can live off natural resources.
But there is an important message for the industrialized world in this study, too. In these difficult economic times, it is tempting to buttress our own standards of living today by incurring even greater financial liabilities for the future. To be sure, there is a role for stimulus in a prolonged recession, but “the only sustainable way is to grow our way out by giving more people the knowledge and skills to compete, collaborate and connect in a way that drives our countries forward,” argues Schleicher.
In sum, says Schleicher, “knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print.” Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning. “The thing that will keep you moving forward,” says Schleicher, is always “what you bring to the table yourself.”