National standards, a high regard for teachers and the teaching profession, more equitable distribution of resources, autonomy at the school level to implement reforms, and opportunities to personalize instruction: These are some of the key reasons Finland saw its students earn the highest marks in both science and math on a recent international exam.

U.S. students, in contrast, were outperformed on average by 16 other industrialized countries in science—and by 23 in math.

The poor showing of U.S. students on the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has renewed calls to improve math and science instruction to keep the nation competitive in the new global economy.

And in light of the results, many observers say the U.S. has much to learn from other countries.

The test was given to 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries last year. It focused on science but also included a math portion. The 30 countries, including the United States, make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the international test.

The issue is not that U.S. students did so poorly on the exam; it’s that other countries have made significant strides in the last few years.

There was no change in U.S. math scores since 2003, the last time the test was given. Yet students in other nations—such as Poland and Estonia—improved enough to leapfrog U.S. students in the results. (The science scores aren’t comparable between 2003 and 2006, because the tests weren’t the same.)

Finland’s 15-year-olds did the best on the science test, followed by students in Hong Kong and Canada. Students in Finland, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong were the top performers in math.

The results serve as a harsh wake-up call to U.S. educators and policy makers, many observers said—especially as the economy becomes more global, and the need to compete with businesses and employees from other nations intensifies.

At a Dec. 4 briefing to discuss the PISA results, representatives from six national organizations—the Alliance for Excellent Education, Asia Society, Business Roundtable, Council of Chief State School Officers, ED in ’08, and National Governors Association—called for more emphasis on the teaching of 21st-century skills in U.S. schools.

“Our students’ performance today is the best indicator of America’s global competitiveness tomorrow,” said Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association. “The United States faces emerging challenges across the international marketplace. The countries that thrive in this new global, entrepreneurial, and knowledge-based economy will be those that have the most highly skilled and educated workforce.”

Business Roundtable President John J. Castellani questioned the lack of outrage that accompanied the test results.

“It is difficult to understand why mediocre achievement by U.S. teenagers on international math and science assessments produces less concern and outcry than mediocre performance by a football or basketball team,” Castellani said.

He added: “There is worldwide competition for people with strong backgrounds in math and science who have the analytic and problem-solving skills needed to create tomorrow’s innovations. We need to take a serious look at what the U.S. can learn from the education systems that routinely pass us by.”

Andreas Schleicher, head of the indicators and analysis division of OECD’s Directorate for Education, discussed some of the characteristics shared by the highest performing nations on the exam, such as Finland.

One thing that stands out about the achievement of Finland’s students is the minimal disparity in scores from school to school, Schleicher said—even those reflecting different socio-economic environments.

“Everyone needs to be competent; it’s not just for the rich or elite anymore,” he said. “In Finland, parents don’t have to worry about which school their children attend, because no matter which school a child attends, the level of educational performance is [about] the same.”

That stands in sharp contrast to the United States, Schleicher said, which has one of the largest gaps between its top-performing students and its lowest-performing students of any industrialized nation.

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to solve this problem. But, though it has brought greater accountability to the nation’s schools, critics of the law say the federal government hasn’t provided enough funding for educators to fully realize its goals.

Last month, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have provided $63.6 billion in funding for the U.S. Department of Education, a 5-percent increase over 2007 spending and 8 percent more than Bush had sought.

Included in the budget bill was $271 million in funding for educational technology, as well as $1.2 billion for career and technical education; Bush had proposed $600 million for the latter program and sought to kill the former entirely.

Roy Romer—the chairman of ED in ’08, a nonpartisan advocacy group that seeks to make education a key issue in the 2008 presidential election—called the latest PISA findings particularly significant in a campaign season.

“We’ve heard candidates talking about health care, the war in Iraq, and taxes. It’s time to focus on the important issue of education and what they’re going to do about raising our country’s performance,” said Romer, a former governor of Colorado who also was superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2001 to 2006. “It does us no good to hear how well we’re doing when we see results like these—and we realize we’re being lied to. Something needs to be done, and something needs to be done now.”

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the PISA results “[speak] to what President Bush has long been advocating for: more rigor in our nation’s high schools, additional resources for advanced courses to prepare students for college-level studies, and stronger math and science education.”

In fact, Spellings said in a statement, “students are being assessed in science under No Child Left Behind this school year. And, the president has proposed making science assessments an element of states’ accountability calculations.”

Through programs such as the Academic Competitiveness Council and National Math Panel, Spellings said, “we’re bringing research-based strategies and best practices into our classrooms. By equipping educators with more data to customize instruction, we’re laying the groundwork to strengthen math and science education. It’s the right course for our students and our workforce.”


Program for International Student Assessment

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Alliance for Excellent Education

Asia Society

Business Roundtable

Council of Chief State School Officers

ED in ’08

National Governors Association