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PISA: Responding to the reaction

How does one register degrees of disappointment? 

As a youngster I recall the varied depths of a sigh emanating from a teacher, coach, or parent at the notion of unmet expectations. Options also included shaking of head, hands upon hips, and furrow of brow to indicate unreached potential. 

Last month, I wrapped those all together into a single, awkward body movement. I wish I had been dancing, but I was closer to raging. 

When the latest round of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released demonstrating stagnant results for the US and impressive gains for many Asian countries, reactions were predictable in every corner of the opinion-sphere: 

Yes, I took a bit of artistic license with some of those headlines, but you get the point. 

As Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Andreas Schleicher lamented, "Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping.”

The reactions were predictable, which is precisely what made them so disappointing. At a moment when we should be engaged in raucous dialogue about our performance, let's actually have the conversation instead of enumerating all the reasons why we shouldn't be talking about it. 

Instead of lamenting such tests as an imprecise measure of learning, we should consider how top performers go far beyond test scores to determine teacher quality and student achievement. In fact, the high-fliers test students less using much higher quality assessments that are far more expensive than the $14 median price of a high-stakes test in the US

Rather than contorted arguments about our high-achievers being comparable to those in other countries (they're not), we should explore how top performers achieve such impressive results by ensuring equitable outcomes for all students. Singapore has the second highest rate of income inequality among developed countries (the US is number 3), yet it consistently produces high achievement among students from all demographics. 

In lieu of ignoring Finland's results on account of their socialism/homogeneity/population size (which is equivalent or larger in population than 31 US states), we should analyze the long-term investments Finns make in the teaching profession or the subsidized early childhood opportunities that socialize children while enabling parents to rejoin the workforce. 

As an alternative to living on last century's glory by pointing out that the US has never fared particularly well on international comparisons, we should wake up to the reality of a globalized economy that is decimating the middle class, tearing at our social fabric, and exposing a political system that is unable to respond to complex challenges. 

Our middling results may not have been as alarming when a high school diploma equated to a blue collar job, an affordable home, a car in the driveway, and a pension upon retirement. Yet we have not retooled our education system for a century when, to paraphrase Alvin Toffler's words, the literate will be those who are able to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Perhaps most of all, we should have considered how education cannot afford to be a political football in smaller or developing countries where economic survival depends on educational outcomes.

Singapore has a quarter of the land mass as Rhode Island with a population exceeding that of 29 US states. It has few natural resources and had to import water from Malaysiathe country that expelled Singapore from its union in 1965—until 2002. Without laurels to rest on, Singapore maintains a laser-like focus on the skills that will be necessary for its workforce to thrive ten, twenty, and thirty years in to an unpredictable future. It honors teachers as 'nation builders' and affords them the preparation, compensation, and respect commensurate with such high regard. 

If you're unconvinced by Singapore, consider Vietnam's impressive showing in it's inaugural PISA appearance: beating out two-thirds of the 65 participating countries. 

We may not be celebrating our results, but let's avoid nuancing them to the point of irrelevance. Our education challenges are not distinct from those encountered globally, but we must be humble enough to recognize this and the urgency with which other countries are responding. 

3 Comments

Justin Minkel commented on January 22, 2014 at 2:39pm:

Absolute brilliance

Kris, this is a piece of writing that everyone involved in U.S. education should read, from teachers to parents to Secretary Duncan.

I, too, find myself mystified by the idea that looking to other nations for best practices is somehow an admission of failure in our own. When I observe other teachers in my school to learn from them, it's a sign of strength and growth, not weakness and failure.

It jars our national psyche to learn that some foreign upstarts have somehow beaten us.

When I learn that a teacher down the hall is doing something extraordinary, I don't fold my arms across my chest and start insisting, "Well, HER students aren't the same age as mine! I have more kids in Special Ed than she does. She only has 17 English Learners in her class--I have 23! She must be taking performance-enhancing drugs."

I go visit that teacher's classroom, watch her in action, and learn what I can from her expertise.

I think Secretary Duncan did a marvelous thing by starting the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York three years ago. His mis-step, of course, is that when he sits down at that table with other nations' Ministers of Education, he only bemoans American teachers' shortcomings, while the other delegations share their nations' strengths as well as their growth areas.

Duncan ended the 2nd summit with the comment that in American we draw most of our teachers from the bottom third of their class. I felt his words as a punch to the gut, and I graduated from an Ivy League University.

The result of teacher-bashing can be a tendency to fold our arms and get defensive when people outside our profession start singing the praises of Singapore and Finland. We need to do what so many of us do as professionals in our schools: find out what all the buzz is about, learn what we can from our colleagues, and be sure to share our own skills and strengths, too.

Gamal Sherif commented on January 25, 2014 at 12:04pm:

Retool the economy and sustainable prosperity will follow.

Kristoffer,

I like how you emphasize "what can we learn?" from other countries experiences with education:

As an alternative to living on last century's glory by pointing out that the US has never fared particularly well on international comparisons, we should wake up to the reality of a globalized economy that is decimating the middle class, tearing at our social fabric, and exposing a political system that is unable to respond to complex challenges. 

However, I am not sure that our economic woes are a result of our education system:

Yet we have not retooled our education system for a century when, to paraphrase Alvin Toffler's words, the literate will be those who are able to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Teachers (and workers) did not cause our economic woes. Irresponsible financiers made poor judgements, cashed out, and sabotaged our economy. It is not the hard-working, over-stressed middle and lower-income classes that downsized, exported jobs, or made irresponsible investments. In once sense, I guess that our education system has been failing; we have raised several generations of people who have allowed wealthy financiers to deconstruct our democratic infrastrucures: schools, healthcare, pensions, transportation, water, energy.

We diminish our profession when we blame educators for economic woes. We need to work with our community, business and legislative partners to ensure that all children are learning ready. Once we do that, AND teacher have effective working conditions, we will have a sustainable and robust economy. Where do we start?

Kristoffer Kohl Kristoffer Kohl commented on January 30, 2014 at 5:41pm:

Finally finding a starting point!

Gamal,

Your final sentence is the question that should have been posed when results were released back in December. We're a couple months behind, but all is not lost.

I have not seen any analysis blaming teachers for PISA results or economics woes. To the contrary, the best 'where do we start?' commentary has focused on the exact issues you identified as top priorities: ensuring equity for all learners and improving working conditions for teachers.

As this piece from Marc Tucker (http://bit.ly/1iPLnus) explains, the highest performers are those who have 1) a high degree of autonomy over curriculum and assessment 2) autonomy over resource allocation at the school level, and 3) wages commensurate with knowledge work rather than blue collar work. Sound like any organized system of education in the US? Not likely.

Tucker goes further in a post from earlier today focusing on Shanghai's elevated requirements to be a teacher and the corresponding mentor roles that are built in to the 13 steps on Shanghai's teacher career ladder (http://bit.ly/1b9Rg0J). Know of any career 'lattices' in the US with 13 rungs on the leadership ladder? Not so much.

As for the moral failures: that's a topic for another post!

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