In a recent article, The Best Schools in the World Do This. Why Don't We?, the editors at NPR questioned why we aren't doing what high-achieving countries are doing in education. They reported on the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) study titled No Time to Lose which gave suggestions for improving our nation's education. The three "takeaways" which NPR thought were most important were
1: More Help For The Youngest Learners...To be sure all three of those areas of American education could use improvement. Universal Pre-K is important, as are having the best people in the classroom and providing for career education. But NPR, heavily influenced by their corporate donors who favor privatization (see here and here), is solidly in the "reform" camp and doesn't mention that NCSL left out the number one problem facing American public education.
2: Teachers Need To Be Better...
3: Fix Career And Technical Education (CTE)...
NCSL claimed that there's an education crisis in the US in part because of our low scores on international tests.
No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State
U.S. RANKING ON PISA...Stephen Krashen, however, frequently reminds us that our national average is skewed by the much higher level of child poverty in the US (emphasis added).
When the fifth survey was administered in 2012, the number of countries in the survey had grown to 65, and included less-developed countries. The news was worse for the U.S., which placed 24th in reading, 36th in mathematics and 28th in science. Again, our standing was in the middle of the countries surveyed. After all of the national, state and district reform efforts during the decade following NCLB, the U.S. was outperformed not only by a majority of the advanced industrial nations, but by a growing number of less-developed nations as well.
The media has learned nothing from the extensive research done on international test scores in the last decade ("U.S. Students Get Stuck in Middle of the Pack on OECD Test," December 3). Study after study shows that the strongest predictor of high scores on these tests is poverty, a conclusion that is backed by a number of other studies showing that students who live in poverty have poor diets, insufficent health care, and lack access to books, all of which contribute to low academic performance. When researchers control for the effect of poverty, the US ranks near the top of the world.Carnoy and Rothstein agree with Krashen. Poverty affects student performance and, given the high level of child poverty in the US, it's understandable that our average would be lower than those nations with lower levels of poverty.
Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared...What did No Time to Lose have to say about the failure of state legislatures to reduce child poverty in their states, the failure of charter and voucher experiments encouraged by states, and the failure of legislatively enforced test and punish schemes?
Instead we're told that state legislators, the same people who, in Indiana for example, gave us the loss of collective bargaining for teachers as well as public education resources diverted to charter and voucher schools, are the ones who need to decide how to fix the schools. The Feds, with their NCLB, RttT, and Common Core, need to be kept out of it.
State legislators must be at the center of this discussion. Education is first and foremost a state responsibility. State legislators represent and can bring together the diverse viewpoints at the state and local levels that must be included in setting a vision and priorities for reforms. States must work together with local entities to design efforts that are practical and appropriate for each individual state. We will not be successful by allowing the federal government to set agendas and priorities.
On the Plus Side
Legislators should ask actual teachers for help in developing public policy which will benefit the majority of students. The report suggests bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders including "state and local policymakers, teachers, principals, superintendents, unions, business, parents and students" in order to set a vision for reform and identify priorities.
And, according to NCSL, we do one thing right – standards.
The only policy approach developed by both U.S. states and top-performing countries is high academic standards. But all of the top performing countries have coupled developing such standards with a curriculum framework, specific curriculum and well-aligned, high quality, essay-based assessments in seamless instructional systems. Most states have yet to move in this direction, and implementation of rigorous standards has been haphazard at best.There is no mention of the fact that in some of the high performing nations, the assessments are all teacher developed. Finland, for example, uses no standardized tests until it's time for students to go to the university. There's nothing in the report about consequences for low achievement, such as retention in grade. There's nothing about "accountability." There's nothing indicating the high stakes nature of our tests as opposed to those in other nations.
On the other hand, the report did say that states needed to provide adequate resources, and that teachers needed "rigorous preparation and licensure." They also mentioned that successful nations do not allow alternative routes to the classroom.
What Should We Do?
The NCSL lists four elements they claim helped high achieving nations improve their international test scores.
Element #1: Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.
Universal Pre-K. We need that. We also need the safety net provided by other nations for their children...health care, food and shelter safety, a lower rate of child poverty, and effective programs to increase jobs for their parents.
Element #2: A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.
We need incentives for our best and brightest to enter the classroom. We need fully trained teachers, not TFA temps, or plans like Indiana's REPA III which allow untrained college graduates to "teach" just because they have content knowledge.
A "world-class instructional system" is more than just highly trained teachers. We need support for maintaining buildings, resources, and continuing professional development. How many schools are there in Chicago (and around the nation) with no school library? no classes in the arts or physical education?
In many of the higher achieving nations students who need the most help, children in poverty, or with special needs, receive the most help. Their schools receive the most resources. Unlike in the US, one of only three advanced nations who spend more money on the wealthy than on the poor.
Element #3: A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.
This would be great, once our crumbling urban educational infrastructure is repaired.
Element #4: Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.
The only planning our state legislature has been doing in Indiana is how to transfer more tax funds from public education to private and privately run schools.
WHY DON'T WE?
NCSL ends their report with
If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.It would be wonderful if state legislatures around the nation took those words to heart, but those are very big "ifs."
- assemble the best minds in policy and practice
Are legislators and other policy makers willing to give up their control and let actual, practicing educators have a voice?
- implement what we know works
Will politicians reject campaign donations meant to skew their votes towards privatization?
- commit ourselves to the time, effort, and resources
Education costs money. Are the wealthy in America willing to pay their fair share to help all children? Are state legislatures ready to increase taxes on those making more than $400,000 (the top 1%) in order to fully fund public education?
Will politicians and policy makers take responsibility for the damage done to public schools through test and punish, privatization, and anti-teacher policies?
The NCSL wants to fix the mess that state legislatures have helped create.
Why don't we do what the best schools in the world do?
Ask your legislator.