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Rank Disappointment

The unimpressive showing by the United States on a global comparison of academic achievement among 15-year-olds is a wake-up call -- but the nation should adapt rather than adopt the approaches of competitors.

The United States made an unimpressive showing on a global comparison of academic achievement among 15-year olds, touching off a fresh round of self-criticism by education reformers, policymakers and pundits, who declared that the results of the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) are evidence that the nation continues to lose ground as a global education and economic leader.

In results released December 7 by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States placed 14th in reading scores among 34 OECD developed countries, 17th in science and an especially disappointing 25th in math. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the results a “wake-up call,” confirming “the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated” by Singapore and regions of China such as Shanghai and Hong Kong – newcomers to a group of non-OECD countries that also participated.

TC faculty members who are experts at comparing national education systems say the test results, although they do point to things that need improvement, do not paint as gloomy a picture as Duncan indicated. Thomas Corcoran, Co-Director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, points out that the 2009 US scores show a modest improvement over those of 2006, “and leaders should recognize that.” In addition, Corcoran and others noted that urban Shanghai’s scores, the highest among participating countries, do not accurately represent of all of China.

And while the test may accurately measure the superiority of Asian countries in preparing students to take achievement tests, the TC experts question whether test-taking prowess necessarily indicates the broad mastery of content and higher-order, flexible thinking that are necessary to innovate and succeed in the 21st century marketplace.

That question aside, the TC faculty say the United States would not solve its competitive problems simply by imitating higher-performing Asian countries. The solutions, they say, must be home-grown or adapted to respond to uniquely American cultural, demographic and socio-economic conditions.


This is a snapshot,” says Thomas Hatch, Associate Professor of Education and Co-Director of TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching. “It doesn’t include things like graduation rates, social-emotional development, mental health indexes, [or] employment indicators. It’s important not to look at the PISA scores in isolation but to put them in context.”

While it is important to analyze standardized test scores in their national context, the United States should be open to ideas from other countries on how to raise performance and test scores, says James Corter, Professor of Statistics and Education. For example, some ideas could be adopted from the Singapore math instruction program, which is gaining in popularity in this country. Another potentially valuable source of ideas for improving instruction is laboratory research by education and cognitive science researchers into basic learning principles, Corter says. For example, recent research has shown that frequent classroom quizzes can solidify learning and help students get better at applying knowledge.

There are more complex issues to be sorted out, as well, the faculty members said. For example, improving and standardizing textbooks and other curricular materials, and aligning them throughout the preK-to-16 education cycle, would require challenging the concept of local control of education and the role that textbook and testing companies play in American education. And while private philanthropists are playing an increasingly large role in public education, expanding support services to children and families and improving crumbling educational facilities on a mass scale in inner city or rural areas would require a commitment from taxpayers and elected officials to spend more on education.

There are also deeper cultural differences among Western and Asian countries. Many families in parts of China and in South Korea and Singapore, for example, require their children to spend more time in and out of school on studying and learning, than students in the United States. “The Chinese are just more motivated to learn mathematics than we are,” says Stephen T. Peverly, a Professor of Psychology and Education who has done comparative studies of Chinese and U.S. curricula and teaching. “It’s hard to compete against a country that considers mathematics a national sport.


Education reformers at US charter schools, such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), have taken the “time on task” idea quite seriously. Longer school days and years, and high parental involvement, are required at many charter schools. Some of them are seeing improved standardized test scores, although it is difficult to tease out the direct effect of more time in school.

But even if longer school days and better test preparation helped the United States to raise its global ranking in test scores, that would not be sufficient for the nation to recover its status as a world leader, suggests Hatch. He recounts spending a few years in Norway, which ranks about on par with the United States around the middle of the PISA charts. He and his wife were initially concerned that, instead of doing school work, their daughters, who were then in fourth grade, were spending a lot of time playing outdoors and doing crafts, while getting little feedback from their teachers.

“We realized that Norway has chosen to emphasize all aspects of children’s development” in the early years of school, reserving academic and job preparation for later years, Hatch writes. “While this system is characterized by less-than-stellar student test scores, it is also associated with top-of-the-charts literacy rates and graduation rates, high ratings on mental health indexes, and low unemployment rates. These ‘results’ are not the product of a particular educational approach or set of educational policies; they reflect the economic, political, geographic, cultural, social, and educational factors that all come together to shape students’ experiences, development and outcomes.


The mediocre performance of American students on the PISA test, compared to Asian countries that emphasize test preparation, was no surprise to anyone who pays attention to global education trends. Hence the call by many American reformers to focus on test preparation and on grading schools, as has been done by New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and by other school systems. But the solution for the United States, according to TC experts, is not to try to map Shanghai’s or Singapore’s techniques on to the American system.

“Uprooting structures from their moorings in the distinctive institutions and cultures in which they were formulated, and transplanting them into a different institutional or cultural context, frequently does not yield the same benefits,” writes Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education. “Better, then, to think broadly about the principles that seem to support successful schooling in high-performing countries, and how these principles might be applied to the distinctive features of the U.S.” 

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the views of the faculty, administration or staff of Teachers College or Columbia University.

Published Friday, Dec. 10, 2010


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