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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.”

“How many wake-up calls do we need?” asked Tom Luce, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative. “These results show the tsunami that is building. The only cure for America’s economic decline is long-term growth, and that only happens with innovation—and that happens by catching up in education.”

Watch Shanghai’s success story on eSN.TV:

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Time for responsibility

The National Association of Secondary School Principals released a statement acknowledging America’s stagnant results. The organization also noted, however, that the U.S cannot ignore “the persistent correlation between poverty and performance,” that “students in poverty require intensive supports to break past a condition that formal schooling alone cannot overcome,” and that “other nations solve this problem by sorting students into their fates beyond age 15. U.S. educators, however, commit to educating all students and encouraging them to high standards into the high school years.”

Still, OECD says poverty alone cannot account for the results. Although every country has different practices, according to PISA officials, socio-economic background plays no part in determining student performance in Asia.

And in 10 years, Korea has managed to double its amount of top student performers in all subjects.

“These results are challenging our conventional wisdom,” said Carmela Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “It shows us that poverty doesn’t mean destiny, and if other countries can improve so much in just one decade, we can do it, too.”

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a press conference, “but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better. The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

“During the [first] Bush administration, the goal was to have our students be first in the world in math and science by 2000, and we’ve continued to push that date further and further,” said Charles Kolb, president of the Committee on Economic Development. “How are we missing these goals? The pace of change is growing at an incredible rate, and here we are, not moving.”

Watch Finland’s success story on eSN.TV:

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What are we doing wrong?

According to Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of OECD’s Directorate for Education, although it’s important to understand that each economy, province, state, district, and school has its own nuances and challenges, there are some common denominators for success:

  1. The best school systems are the most equitable—students do well regardless of their socio-economic background, but schools that select students based on ability at a younger age show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.
  2. High-performing systems allow schools to design curricula and establish assessment policies, but don’t necessarily allow competition among schools for students. Also, combining local autonomy with effective accountability produces good results.
  3. Schools with good discipline and better student-teacher relations achieve better results.
  4. The more uniform the school system as a whole, the better the student performance.
  5. Countries that perform the highest tend to partner successful schools with struggling ones to share best practices with the struggling schools.
  6. Successful countries believe that all students, not just some, need to learn at high levels.
  7. Successful countries make the teaching profession attractive with good salaries and multiple opportunities for promotions. They also train teachers to become highly-qualified professionals.
  8. Successful schools have a flat, collaborative, collegial-type of work environment, rather than a top-down hierarchical approach.
  9. Successful schools are accountable to other schools (their peer institutions) and to the school’s stakeholders. There is also a clear articulation of who is responsible for ensuring student success.
  10. Top-performing students usually attend preschool.
  11. Top-performing students have access to individualized learning opportunities and are taught higher-level thinking skills.
  12. Successful countries align their standards to global standards and tend to have a country-wide standard system.
  13. Successful countries also have effective instruments to share and spread their knowledge of what works.

Schleicher said one finding indicated that the amount of money spent on education explains only 10 percent of an economy’s success—a point that resonated the most with press conference attendees.

“As the years progress, money spent on education will explain less and less,” said Schleicher. “We expect this number to decrease to six percent in the next three years; meaning that 94 percent of success depends on how you invest what you have.”

“We need to re-structure our investments, and one way to do this is to get our young people interested in foreign cultures and incite a desire to compete in the global economy,” said Kolb. “We can do this by focusing more on foreign languages; this will inculcate an investment mentality in our young. American companies cannot compete successfully in the global economy without a workforce that can communicate effectively with their colleagues in other countries.”

Schleicher’s recommendations to create a national standard relates to goals of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which see this in the creation and adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

“A foundation for helping all students become globally competitive are the Common Core State Standards, internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards that have now been adopted in states representing 87 percent of the nation’s K-12 public school population,” said Dane Linn, director of the Education Division for the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. “When our students have the skills and knowledge needed for today’s workforce, we will be positioned to compete successfully with any country in the world.”

Alongside PISA’s results, McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, released a new report called “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better,” which analyzes 20 systems from around the world, all with improving but differing levels of performance. The report examines how each has achieved significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes.

The McKinsey report identifies reform elements that are replicable for school systems elsewhere as they “move from poor to fair, to good to great, to excellent,” says the company. The report can be found here.

Many of McKinsey’s findings mirror those of PISA in terms of what top-performing education systems are doing. The report’s findings include the following eight highlights:

1. A system can make significant gains from wherever it starts, and these gains can be achieved in six years or less.

2. There is too little focus on “process” in the debate today, meaning that improving system performance ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students in the classrooms by changing school structure, resources, and processes (curriculum and instruction).

3. Each particular stage of the school system improvement journey is associated with a unique set of interventions.

4. A system’s context might not determine what needs to be done, but it does determine how it is done.

5. Six interventions occur equally at every performance stage for all systems: teacher and administrator professional development, assessing students, improving data systems, introduction of policy documents and education laws, revising standards and curriculum, and ensuring reward and remuneration structure for teachers and principals.

6. Systems further along the journey sustain improvement by balancing school autonomy with consistent teacher practice.

7. Leaders take advantage of changed circumstances to ignite reform.

8. Leadership continuity is essential.

“Aligning education goals to economic development, Asian nations have scoured the world for models of effective education systems, and implemented them consistently through deliberate policies and long-term investments,” said Tony Jackson, vice president of education at Asia Society. “Any definition of a world-class education must include knowledge of Asia and the language and cultural skills to deal with Asia. It’s a two-way street: America must now learn from—and with—Asia and the world.”



2009 PISA results

McKinsey & Company

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit our “Solving the STEM Education Crisis” Educator Resource Center. As technology becomes an integral part of the workplace, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills are no longer just “good skills” to have; they are increasingly important to a 21st-century education. Go to:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

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