Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Back in the dark ages of computer video games, there was great excitement over the geography-teaching game called “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” A series of clues would be revealed, and the game player would have to guess where on earth the virtual Carmen was residing. Try it. “Carmen is sipping a cappuccino at a sidewalk café and is about to enjoy a plate of pasta. Just beyond the town square near the banks of the River Arno stands a tower, tilting precariously at about 4 degrees. Where in the world is Carmen? Ans.: Pisa, Italy.

See, it's easy. OK, try this one.

Carmen is sitting at Starbucks enjoying a latte macchiato surrounded by her fellow customers engrossed in their iPads and iPhone 5s and laptops of various persuasions. For miles around her the neighborhoods feature multi-million dollar estates, home to successful entrepreneurs and "early-retirees." Down the street, one finds school buildings designed by world-class architectural firms, and in them the children of the rich study assiduously under the tutelage of experienced, highly educated teachers making $75,000 a year and up. On international tests, 40% of these children score at the advanced level in Math and Science. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Ans.: Well, if you have been following the results of TIMMS and PISA — not the city in Italy but the paper-pencil test — you have no doubt guessed that Carmen is enjoying her latte in Singapore.


Carmen could be sitting in Highland Park (IL) or Greenwich (CT) or San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara (CA) or Alexandria (VA) or any of a dozen more cities and metropolitan areas in the United States that can out-test any nation on the globe.

Why then, would anyone think that the secrets to success are to be found in the schools of Singapore (with the highest percentage of millionaires of any nation in the world), or Hong Kong, or Northern Ireland (oh, yes, Northern Ireland scored just below Japan on the TIMSS 2011 math test)? And Finland fell back to near equality with the entire U.S. on 4th and 8th grade Math. What about all those experts we sent to Finland since the last international assessment in search of the Holy Grail?

When will we stop playing these ridiculous games like “Where in the World Are the Greatest Schools?” When will we stop acting as if a few paper-and-pencil tests will reveal the secrets to economic progress and world domination? When will we begin to treat education as the complex relationship among families, children, and educators that it truly is?

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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