Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Align America's K-12 Students with International Standards

The sorry state of America’s K-12 public education system is highlighted by how its students fare on the international stage. In math and science, we rank 18th out of 24 industrialized nations. Occasional spikes in PISA test scores only underscore how far we have fallen behind nations like Singapore, Finland and Japan. Our high school dropout rate is a national catastrophe. The symptoms are endless. Even allowing for the tendency to be more pessimistic than what the situation warrants, it is clear that more than financial institutions, what needs urgent overhauling is our public school system. It is perhaps themost critical challenge for the Obama administration.

Recommendations about how to raise the standards of our schools to meet the demands of the 21st century continue to pour forth from various organizations and foundations. Bill Gates, speaking on behalf of the Gates Foundation, acknowledges that small classrooms and breaking up big schools into smaller units didn’t work because a key factor was missing: rigorous accountability. That includes elected school boards, teachers and IT departments. At the center of this is the teachers unions whose main function seem to be to protect teachers at any cost, particularly the incompetent. Gates is a fervent believer in weeding out bad teachers and paying the good ones substantially more than whatthey take home now. He is wary of increased federal intervention in education, which he thinks is fundamentally a state and local matter.

A new report from the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc., offers several recommendations for rebuilding America’s public education system. Called “
Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education,” it lists five steps toward building a globally competitive education system in America.

1. Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12.
2. Leverage states’ collective influence to ensure that textbooks, digital media, curricula, and assessments are aligned to internationally benchmarked standards.
3. Revise state policies for recruiting, preparing, developing, and supporting teachers and school leaders to reflect the human capital practices of top-performing nations and states around the world.
4. Hold schools and systems accountable through monitoring, interventions, and support to ensure consistently high performance, drawing upon international best practices.
5. Measure state-level education performance globally by examining student achievement and attainment in an international context to ensure that students are receiving the education they need to compete in the 21st century economy.

This is the most detailed report I have seen where performance of American students have been tied to the performance of international students. It is a recognition that we must have the humility to borrow from countries like Finland and Singapore whose educational practices continue to pay enormous educational, economic and social dividends for them. We know what these practices are: Attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession by training them extensively and rewarding them with high pay, track teacher and student performances rigorously and ruthlessly and take proactive actions where necessary, and never let politics trump accountability and high standards. Not really secrets, are they?

Achieving a common academic standard is a most daunting challenge. As Lou Gerstner, an educator and former chairman of IBM, has pointed out, there are over 15,000 school districts in America, each with its own standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on.

Can the recommendations of the governors be implemented? The question is: Who can take on the bruising battle with conflicting interest groups and entrenched mindsets that cannot see beyond the next curve in the road? The federal government can go just so far. “No Child Left Behind” has been manipulated beyond recognition in many states. The bar for academic performance has been shamelessly lowered to allow school administrators to claim that their woefully unprepared wards are moving forward and not being left behind. States are in the grips of boards and unions and any call for changes get mired in endless debates and deliberations. (Hence the success of charter schools).

It really is up to the American people. Where there is a will, there is a way. This spirit has guided Americans for more than two centuries, particularly during difficult times. The critical mass is there. Can the Obama administration be the catalyst for bringing about fundamental changes in our K-12 public education system? Unless something goes terribly awry, I believe it can.

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