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August 29, 2014, 4:16 pm

Schools in tailspin

Last week an independent study group from the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report concluding that the state of American education represents a “national security crisis” due to the failure of our public schools to prepare students to be competitive and informed.

“Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk,” the report, from The U.S. Education Reform and National Security Task Force, said, adding that the country “will not be able to keep pace — much less lead — globally unless it moves to fix the problems...”

Among other things, the study found that more than a quarter of students fail to graduate from high school in four years (a number that is closer to 40 percent for African-American and Hispanic students), and less than half of college-bound seniors meet college-ready standards, meaning that more undergraduates need to take remedial courses.

The panel was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, the former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education — and an early candidate to be President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education.  

“One of the things that I want to underscore is that we do believe that the public education system ... [is] one of our critical democratic institutions,” said Rice. “And yet it is unable now, particularly for kids who don’t have means, to deliver that ticket to a better life.”

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. The U.S. currently shells out more on education than any country besides Switzerland — an average of nearly $150,000 per student over the course of a 13-year school career, or more than double what we spent 40 years ago. And yet we have increasingly little to show for it.

In 2009, the U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 31st in math and 23rd in science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — bested in all categories by countries like Estonia, Iceland and Slovenia. China ranked first across the board.

For more than a decade the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment has served as the international standard for measuring education success and the benchmark by which the global community gauges student achievement. The rankings are based on tests administered every three years to 15-year-olds that measure reading literacy, mathematics literacy and science literacy, as well as general or cross-curricular competencies such as problem solving. Since its introduction in 2000, the U.S. has never made the top ten.

“One of the most compelling characteristics of the top-performing countries is that they are intensely interested in knowing what the other high-performing countries are doing, and they are always very critical of their own operations and eager to learn from others,” said Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “But until recently, the U.S. paid little attention to what anyone else was doing.”

By recently, Tucker means two years ago. As in the spring of 2010, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan caught wind of America’s paltry 2009 PISA rankings and decided it was time to find out what was going on. He asked the OECD to produce a report detailing the strategies employed by the countries and regions with the world’s best performing schools — specifically Germany, Brazil, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Ontario, Canada.

“That was a signal moment, the first time that a U.S. secretary of education had ever expressed such interest in the strategies employed by other nations to surpass the U.S. on the PISA league tales,” said Tucker.

The findings were published in a December 2010 paper and presented the following May at a symposium in Washington. Last year, Tucker and his colleagues at the NCEE updated the findings to include a series of recommendations for U.S. policy makers and published the results in the book, “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”

The book lays out a handful of practical steps for bringing the U.S. in line with the world’s leading education systems — including placing more control over administering education policy in the hands of the states and distributing money and resources on a proportional basis to those students that need it the most; but most of the solutions are focused on recruiting, educating and retaining great teachers, and giving them the autonomy to learn as they grow and apply what they’ve learned to improve teaching practices.

“The overwhelming sentiment ... is that teachers need to be treated more as professionals and as knowledge workers and less as interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line,” said Duncan in 2010.

Part of that involves paying them more. (The starting salary for a teacher in Pennsylvania, for instance, is around $35,000, on average, which is less than a manager at Taco Bell. Entry-level teachers in high-performance countries, by contrast, earn roughly the same as starting engineers, Tucker says.) But it also means recruiting better ones. According to McKinsey & Company — a global consulting firm — nearly half of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes. In high-poverty areas like Philadelphia, just 14 percent come from the top of their classes. Finland, meanwhile, requires all of its teachers to have master’s degrees, and accepts just 10 percent of college graduates into its teacher training program. In all high-performing countries, acceptance criteria to teaching colleges is stringent, and only the best and brightest make it through.

“The countries that succeed in the world are recruiting their teachers from the top 10, 15, 25 percent of college graduates. For a long time America hasn’t done that,” said Klein. “We need to upgrade our teachers, support our teachers, provide constant learning and training for them.”

Critics often lay blame for poorly performing teachers on powerful unions and the contracts they negotiate that provide for easy tenure and make it hard to get rid of bad performers. But Tucker says while contract terms do need to be relaxed, the notion that increasing the number of high-quality professionals depends on having efficient mechanisms for getting rid of the bad ones is backwards logic.

“If you look at the medical profession for example, the procedures that we have for getting rid of lousy doctors are no more effective than we have for getting rid of lousy teachers, in fact they are probably worse,” he said.

The difference in those professions, Tucker says, is that quality control goes on in the front, not at the back of the process.

“So, it’s much harder to get into those professions, the standards are much higher. I think we have this accountability issue backwards.”

By observing practices in high-performing countries it’s also clear that we’re relying too much on standardized tests to gauge both the achievement levels of student and the quality of the teachers educating them. In most other countries, high-quality, comprehensive tests that gauge not only math, reading and science, but also problem solving and critical thinking, are administered sparingly throughout a student’s career — typically at the end of elementary school and once or twice in high school.

Meanwhile, America’s schools continue to grapple with the fallout from President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and more recently President Obama’s Race to the Top program — both of which, critics say, put undue emphasis on standardized testing to set goals and measure performance.

Earlier this month it was revealed that 56 Philadelphia schools, including three charter schools, are under investigation for teacher-assisted cheating on proficiency tests — a clear indication that something has gone horribly awry with the way we measure success.

Tucker lays the blame squarely on standardized testing, noting that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that places such an emphasis on repeated, multiple-choice, computer-scored tests of mathematics and language.

“When you hear people from other countries talking about what they want for their kids, they rarely talk about performance in the basic skills. They assume that their kids can read well, write well and compute adequately,” he said. “So what they talk about is their capacity to be creative, their capacity to demonstrate innovative behavior, to think out of the box; we are putting the emphasis on the acquisition of basic skills to the detriment of the skills that they think are essential to the survival of their culture and economy, and I think they’re right.”