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No Country Left Behind: Bringing the U.S. Up to International Standards

July 16, 2009 // 12:30pm1:45pm
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On July 16 2009, Wilson Center on the Hill and the Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy (STAGE) brought three international education experts to Capitol Hill to discuss the main characteristics of education systems around the world and to discuss how U.S. policymakers and educators could use the experiences of other successful countries to strengthen American schools. Education systems differ widely from country to country. Factors such as curriculum standards, teacher education methods, accountability measures, funding choices, and governance significantly affect educational quality and equality in each system. In recent years, many countries have surpassed the United States both in educational performance and equality of outcomes, especially in the fields of math and science. The three experts gave U.S. policymakers tangible recommendations for bringing the U.S. education system up to international standards.

The event followed an earlier session at the Wilson Center and both panels were made possible by a generous grant from the Petrie Foundation.

Andreas Schleicher, the head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Directorate for Education, started the discussion by explaining the dramatic shift in educational attainment globally and describing what we can learn from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The OECD conducts and analyzes the 2006 PISA survey every three years to assess the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 57 countries, representing 87 percent of the world economy. In the last decade, the United States has been overtaken by many other countries, including Australia, Sweden, Norway, Japan, and Finland in the portion of each country's population that receives a college degree. Similarly, in the area of K-12 education, the 2006 PISA survey showed U.S. students performing behind those of 28 countries

The PISA survey also explores the relationship between educational quality and equality. According to Schleicher, "it is quite possible to achieve high learning outcomes, and equitable performance, with a good value for the money". An example of this combination is Finland, which is a top performer and has one of the most equitable systems, with only 5 percent variability in performance between schools. In contrast, the United States system has failed to deliver equity, as socioeconomic background remains the main determinant of academic achievement.

Findings from the PISA survey show that educational spending does have an affect on performance, but where the spending goes is more important than how much is spent per student. The United States spends the most per student on education, but performs worse than many countries that spend significantly less, including Finland and Korea. As Schleicher explained, this difference is in how much of that funding contributes to actual classroom instruction. In the United States, money goes primarily to lowering class sizes, while Korea, for example, has sacrificed small classes and invested most in teachers, giving them higher salaries and creating a good working environment with professional development opportunities and ample time for instruction and planning. Schleicher explained that, while small classes are always beneficial, policymakers face a difficult set of trade-offs and constrained budgets. Ultimately, investing in teachers is more cost-effective.

Schleicher then outlined the main characteristics of high-performing school systems. The countries with the best scores on the PISA all have clearly defined and challenging universal standards, along with individual school autonomy. Further, great teachers are attracted to the profession and are given the support and professional development to grow in their careers. This approach is emulated in most European systems, which have centralized standards or "goals" for how students should perform in each grade level, but give schools discretion with their curriculum, budget, organization, hiring, and teaching decisions. The United States, on the other hand, lacks universal standards and also has a much lower degree of central control than other countries.

William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University and former executive director of the U.S. National Center that oversaw U.S. participation in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, addressed what the United States needs to do to improve student performance and to achieve equity within the system. He referenced a study comparing the top ten percent of America's 8th grade students with their global peers that showed that they were performing at the bottom, and stated that in his view the reason U.S. students are not reaching their fullest potential is the lack of focus, coherence, and rigor in the U.S. curriculum. Most countries cover about three mathematical topics within a specific grade level, in contrast to the United States, which covers about twenty. The failure of the curriculum to focus on any one topic in depth leads to a redundancy in the curriculum and a lack of rigor in the topics taught.

Furthermore, the curriculum taught in the U.S. lacks coherence. In any discipline, and especially mathematics (where U.S. students perform the worst), the sequence of topics taught should be consistent with the structure of the discipline. No two states, Schmidt explained, agree on where any single math topic should fall in the grade-level sequence. Since each year fails to build on the previous one in a manner consistent with the discipline, students develop a disconnected understanding of mathematics, a major impediment to higher performance.

The lack of universal standards also contributes to both poor performance and widespread inequity within the U.S. education system. Due to the structure of our system, districts determine both the overall standards for what students should know and the curriculum for how teachers should teach. Studies show that the rigor of the curriculum within a district is tied to the socioeconomic background of the students, so students from low-income backgrounds are doubly disadvantaged and the school system exacerbates existing inequality. Schmidt described this as the "antithesis of the American dream," because "[the] system is stacked against the very students that need schooling the most."

He emphasized that, in his view, the best way to improve the U.S. education system is to set universal standards. These standards should take the form of clearly defined goals that establish what students should know at each grade level, while states and districts should still have the autonomy to create curricula and organize their schools around these standards. Such a system would ensure that every student, regardless of socioeconomic background or geographic location, would go to a school that is held to high standards and would be taught from a curriculum that pushes them to achieve. With a set of universal standards, U.S. students would begin to see coherent, focused, and rigorous curricula in their schools, with textbooks and trained teachers to match.

The final speaker was Iris C. Rotberg, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University and the Editor of Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform. Like the other two speakers, she emphasized the fact that socioeconomic background is a large factor in a student's success. However, she contended that other forms of economic and social reform will be necessary to solve the problem – we must address the underlying societal problems causing poverty. Although other countries have developed education systems that have lessened the effects of socioeconomic background on performance, all are still struggling to close the achievement gap. For example, large inflows of immigrants into European countries are challenging the ability of their school systems to deliver adequate education and achieve equitable performance.

Rotberg also warned that international assessment comparisons, which guide a lot of our rhetoric in relation to education reform, could distract us from focusing on the main problem, which is not that our students perform lower than other countries, but that societal issues such as inequality linger.

Congressional staff and other audience members responded with a number of questions. One question was posed about the negative impact of national standards on parental and local involvement. In response, Schleicher explained that national standards should only be used to set clear goals for all students and should still give schools autonomy and decision-making power in how the school, and its students, reach those goals. Schmidt added that if all students are not held to the same standards, then ultimately they are not given the same opportunities to succeed.

Others posed questions about the impact of technology on learning and the negative affects of long summer vacations on students' knowledge retention. Unfortunately, there is little quantitative evidence on the effects of technology on education, Schleicher explained. Students do need technological skills for today's job world, he expressed, but these skills do not tend to be tested. In regards to summer vacations, he responded that there are many other educational models that do not have long summer vacations that can be implemented in the United States, although it may be hard to break tradition. There are ways to moderate the impact of summer vacation on students' growth and learning with complementary activities. Rotberg also added that we have to consider the trade-offs implicit in making longer school years, such as where the money to fund more school days would come from.

One audience member asked the panel to reflect on the impact of student stratification, particularly in the Singapore model. In response, Schleicher stated that, in general, stratification has negative effects on students. However, the Singapore model is an exception because students are placed in tracks based solely on test performance and the results are reversible. Rotberg added that an enormous amount of resources and thinking have gone into the Singapore model to make it effective. In addition, Schmidt stated that, in the United States, the consequences of stratification have been very negative. In these tracked systems eighty percent of the students suffer for the benefit of just the top twenty percent.

Ultimately, the panel stressed that progress can be made with reforms that establish universal standards for all schools, which will lead to more coherent and rigorous curriculums, teacher training methods, textbooks, and policies that address underlying societal problems. As Schleicher stated, it is possible to create an equitable high-performing school system. Borrowing from the experiences of successful education systems around the world, the United States can ensure an equitable and rigorous education for all its students.

Drafted by Julia Smearman, STAGE Program
Kent H. Hughes, Director, STAGE Program

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