What U.S. schools can learn from abroad

Experts say PISA results are a good indicator of future economic success.

U.S. students once again placed near the middle of the pack in the latest international comparisons in reading, math, and science—and the program’s organizers have issued a list of key characteristics that top-performing nations share.

These keys to success include training, respecting, paying, and empowering their teachers more fully; emphasizing preschool education; pairing successful schools with struggling ones; and personalizing the learning process for students.

With the release of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results last week, the U.S. has again ranked average in reading, math, and science when compared with other industrialized nations. Some U.S. observers say they’re encouraged by the nation’s gains in science, but in the global economic footrace that continues to boast increasingly faster runners, is optimism enough to win?

PISA’s survey, completed every three years and based on two-hour tests of a half-million 15-year-old students in more than 70 countries, revealed that along with Korea and Finland, the province of Shanghai, China, scored higher in reading than any other countries. In just the first year that Shanghai has participated in PISA, it also topped the list of nations in math and science performance.

To put this in perspective, more than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just three percent.

PISA scores are based on a scale, with 500 as the average. Shanghai scored 600 in math; the U.S. scored 487. In reading, Shanghai scored 556; the U.S. scored 500. In science, Shanghai scored 575; the U.S. scored 502.

All in all, the U.S. ranked 25th out of 65 countries in math, 14th in reading, and 17th in sciences—a slight improvement over its 21st place in science in 2006.

Hear OECD’s take on the results on eSN.TV:

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These scores carry weight, not just because they’re embarrassing to a nation that once led the world in education performance and innovation, but because PISA results, even though they poll 15-year-olds, have a direct relation to a country’s future economic success.

“Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria. “While national income and education achievement are still related, PISA shows that two countries with similar levels of prosperity can produce very difference results. This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated countries is now out of date.”

Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, summed up the U.S mediocrity with a simple sports metaphor during a recent press conference: “We’re like the Redskins. We’re doing a little better on the field and we’re winning a few games, but we’re nowhere near the Super Bowl. We need to figure out how we’re going to get each of our kids the Super Bowl ring.”

Meris Stansbury

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