In & out of step with top ed systems

Updated at 2:45 pm, April 2

Andreas Schleicher looks the part of a diplomat. Tall and slim, with thick gray hair, and impeccable English spoken with a European accent. He is also the consummate diplomat when it comes to assessing the United States’ standing in education. In most countries, low results on the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam, led to contemplation and action. In the United States, not so much; at least not initially.

“I don’t think there was really much of an impact in the year 2000 when the results came first,” said Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. That year the United States ranked 15th in literacy, retrieving information, and interpreting texts; and 11th in reflecting on texts. The U.S. was behind what have come to be the usual suspects, including Finland, Canada, Korea and Japan, as well as some nations that give the U.S. a collective wince, such as Iceland, Ireland and, mon Dieu, France.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source:  PISA) Click to enlarge.
U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source: PISA) Click to enlarge.

Schleicher said the big impact came after the 2006 results. That’s when U.S. 15-year-olds scored 21st in the world in science literacy, 19th in identifying scientific issues, 23rd in explaining phenomena scientifically, and 22nd in using scientific evidence. That got the attention of politicians, which informed the development of Common Core standards and Race to the Top, the competitive $4.35 billion federal program to give states money to improve student achievement through innovative strategies.

“I think the Common Core standards hold a lot of promise. I wouldn’t underrate the potential impact they can have eventually on what happens in classrooms,” Schleicher said. “I think the challenge is to translate that into instructional practices.”

Schleicher discussed these optimistic notes and more during a video interview (click here for part 1 and here for part 2) with Thoughts on Public Education when he was in California for a conference at Stanford University on the Finnish educational system, which we wrote about here.

Valuing teachers

Some of the biggest differences between the United States and the better scoring nations on PISA is in the prestige of the teaching profession. “Pay in the United States is comparatively low,” said Schleicher. Although U.S. teachers may earn more money than those in other countries, the compensation is significantly lower than for other professions. That’s not the case in places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with other civil servants, including lawyers.

Salary is one aspect of teacher satisfaction, but it isn’t solely responsible for the high attrition rate among new teachers, which is 30% in the first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In other countries, teachers are given time during the school day to collaborate with their colleagues and to observe master teachers, and they receive high-quality professional development. They also have a career ladder that isn’t just aimed at administration.

“If you tell a person who’s 25 years old, you are in school, you are going to be a math teacher, and 25 years from now you’re still going to be in that school as a math teacher, you’re telling young people that there is no future for them,” explained Schleicher. Other countries have professional progressions that could lead to the principal’s or superintendent’s office, but also include training other teachers, going into curriculum development, and other non-bureaucratic positions. “That way,” said Schleicher, “you’ll retain your best teachers in the profession.”

Factoring for diversity

When asked what three steps the United States should take to propel itself back onto the top of the charts, Schleicher was quick with an answer.

  • Common Core standards:  The U.S. has already begun this process of developing a set of clear goals detailing what good performance looks like.
  • Building capacity for delivering Common Core:  Attracting the best people into the teaching profession and providing the resources, support and professional develop to retain them.
  • Developing an equitable system:  This takes the second step even farther by attracting the best teachers and principals to work in the most challenging classrooms and schools, and ensuring that the money gets where it can make the biggest difference.

Critics of the PISA rankings cite the vast differences between the United States and some of the countries at the top of the list as significant challenges to employing some of these measures.  Singapore and China have powerful central governments.  Finland lacks racial and ethnic diversity, and the entire population of the country could fit into California’s public schools with a million seats left over.

Schleicher said that PISA does consider the environment in comparing countries, including diversity in wealth, language, ethnic background, and religion.  The United States isn’t alone in dealing with diversity, “there are a lot of countries that are a lot more successful than the United States in moderating socio-economic diversity,”  he said. “The context of an education system is a challenge, but the test of truth for an education system is how it moderates that context.”