How Should We Use International Data To Improve U.S. Education?

on Thursday, Jan. 12th

Where does the U.S. stand in terms of education compared to the rest of the world? What should the U.S. be doing to measure up to countries that outperform us academically?

Education Week just released their annual publication, Quality Counts 2012, that analyzes important issues facing American schools, and this year’s edition is focused on how the U.S. compares to international systems.

In general, the U.S. does not shine in comparison to other nations. 15-year-olds in the U.S. scored around the international average in science and reading, but below the international average in math. Countries like China are surging ahead in terms of contributing to the number of college-educated people in the world. The focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) achievement is due to the correlation between those fields and economic growth and stability.

Here are some highlights from the report:

How are we measured? Can better scores affect our economy in a positive way?

The PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment, and the TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, are the international assessments used to rank nations in order.

One of the main debates discussed by Education Week experts is whether improving scores on these exams will visibly affect U.S. economic growth. Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, believes that if the U.S. increased its math performance by 40 points on PISA, the nation’s gross domestic product would increase between 7-to-11 percent annually on average over the next 80 years.

Critics like Hal Salzman, an economist at Rutgers University, say linking achievement on these tests to the economic status of our country can distort how business and policy leaders go about reforming education.

Should we focus on the high or low end of the achievement spectrum?

Another question in the report is whether the U.S. should focus efforts on raising the performance of its high achievers or the larger pool of students performing at low levels on the PISA and TIMSS.

The report states that in countries that outperform the U.S., the gaps between the highest and lowest performing students are smaller. Hanushek’s research supports the idea that improving the skill levels of both basic and advanced achievers are “equally important to economic growth.”

But, do high and low performing students need the same things? Educators are torn between encouraging all students to go to college, and encouraging students to explore a variety of academic and vocational paths after high school.

Alan Ginsburg, a retired director of policy and program studies at the U.S. Department of Education, also contributed to the report, and said that regardless, instruction in STEM areas should be geared towards a broad range of students, both college-bound and otherwise.

The article paraphrases Ginsburg:

American schools could do more to integrate algebra, geometry, statistics, and other core competencies across the curriculum—especially in such course areas as career-and-technical education—and give struggling and average performers more time to master those concepts, he argues. That approach would give students an understanding of the practical application of academic work, he says, and it would provide students, especially those who don’t go to a four-year college right away, stronger workforce skills.

How does the U.S. support its teachers?

Because of the most recent economic downturn, incentives and support for teachers has suffered.

For example, just 16 states—seven fewer than in 2010—require new teachers to participate in state-funded mentoring programs. In addition, the number of states willing to finance incentives for teachers to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards dropped to 24 in this year’s report, from 31 in 2010.

In general, Ginsburg and others say the U.S.’s approach towards education reform is very different than other nations. The U.S. looks for immediate outcomes, without a focus on how to reach its set goals, whereas successful Asian countries spend more time revising and implementing their policies.

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