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To Fix U.S. Public Education, Take a Lesson From Countries That Top Student Rankings

To Fix U.S. Public Education, Take a Lesson From Countries That Top Student Rankings

Photograph by Link Image/Gallery Stock

One lesson that winners in all fields learn is that it’s often easier to get to the top than to stay there. In addition to talent, grit, and risk-taking, getting to the top often involves good timing, luck, and even the possible misfortune of others.

There’s no security at the top. Leaders face intense and relentless competition; good luck and fortuitous timing are one-time advantages.

This lesson came to mind when I read a recent news report on America’s mediocre performance in the latest round of international student testing: the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests.

Released in December, a new PISA assessment is given every three years, evaluating the performance of 510,000 15-year-old students in 65 “countries and economies” in math, reading, and science, including 6,000 students from 161 randomly selected schools in the United States (PDF).

Not surprisingly, key Asian countries and economies ranked high in all three categories. In math, for example, students from Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea topped the list. In science, Shanghai, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Finland earned the top five spots.

U.S. students, on the other hand, didn’t impress. They ranked “on par” with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average in reading and science (17th and 21st, respectively) and below the OECD average in math (26th), positioned with countries such as Lithuania and the Slovak Republic.

One of U.S. students’ biggest weaknesses in math—a subject of particular concern to me—is the “mathematization of a real-world situation.” This means they have difficulty applying mathematical principles and tools to analyze and solve concrete problems and situations.

Also disconcerting is the spread between the number of U.S. students who performed very well on the tests vs. those who scored very poorly. Only 9 percent of American students scored at or near the top in math, while three times that number (26 percent) scored at or near the bottom. The story is similar in science, where just 7 percent of the U.S. students scored at the highest levels, while 18 percent scored at the lowest.

What do these tests tell us?

First, they confirm what we already know: A lot of American schools are failing America’s children—failing to teach them the basics, failing to prepare them to use the basics in the “real world,” and failing to encourage them to aim for the top.

The tests also confirm that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution. The U.S. spends more money per capita—when federal, state and local funding are added up—than most other countries. That doesn’t translate into better performance.

The PISA tests also tell us what is working. Top-performing countries, such as those in Asia, place far greater emphasis on selecting and training teachers, set clear achievement targets for them, and provide them with a significant amount of classroom autonomy, the OECD said. We can learn from their example, much as U.S. charter schools have.

There’s also a lot that the PISA tests don’t tell us. For example, comparing students in Shanghai and Taipei (wealthy areas in China and Taiwan) with a national sample of U.S. students—which includes students from the rural south and America’s inner cities, as well as high-income suburbs—provides a misleading comparison.

Nor do the tests also measure ingenuity and creativity, the hallmarks of American progress, wherein U.S. students traditionally have excelled.

In short, the tests are cause for concern, not panic. It wasn’t just public education that put America on top; a lot more was at play. Still, if we hope to stay ahead, fixing public education is a must, and PISA has given us a few ideas we can try.

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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