Why American students lag in test scores

Maryland's schools have earned top rankings and plaudits in recent years. Yet as students from other countries continue to outscore their U.S. counterparts on international math, science and reading tests, even here the demands for lifting caps on the number of charter schools, tying teacher pay to student performance, and revising or abolishing teacher seniority and tenure rules have grown more insistent.

Can any of these measures — or more traditional proposals, such as increasing education funding or reducing class size — propel the U.S. into the ranks of the top-performing nations? A study by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) examined the programs of the world's highest-performing education systems in Finland, Canada, Singapore, Japan and Shanghai, China, and concludes that the answer is a resounding "no." In almost every area, these countries have created the world's most successful educational systems by doing what we are not doing — and vice versa.

These high-performing nations start by setting shared, rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards for student performance, not just in their native language and mathematics but across all core subjects. They base their exams on a clearly defined curriculum and have frameworks that specify what topics are to be taught in each subject, at each grade level. (The new Common Core State Standards, adopted by Maryland and most other U.S. states, are an important step toward a system of this kind, but we have a long way to go.)

The top-performing countries differentiate their educational spending to give the hardest-to-educate students more resources and support than other students. The U.S. is alone among industrialized countries in providing the most money for the students who have the most advantages. The top-performing countries spend less than we do on fancy school buildings, glossy four-color textbooks and intramural sports, and more on paying and training teachers well. Maybe that is why the U.S. spends more per student than all but one other industrialized country — and still gets only average results.

Most importantly, the best-performing countries make sure they are recruiting their teachers from the same pool they get their doctors, architects and engineers from, and treat them like full-fledged professionals, while the U.S. continues to treat teaching as a second-tier job. The standards for getting into our teacher colleges remain low, and the training new teachers receive does not prepare them to help their students reach globally benchmarked education standards. Meanwhile, high-performing countries are moving teacher education into their prestigious research universities, and admission standards are very high. We waive our standards every time we have a teacher shortage, while other countries reject far more qualified applicants for entry into their teachers programs than they accept, and they have no teacher shortages.

The investment in teachers' professional capacity and the commitment to pay them salaries comparable to those in the leading professions result in a teacher corps that performs very well. Because they perform well, their teachers have high status and are trusted. Because they are trusted, they don't have to put up with the onerous kinds of accountability that are now popular in the U.S. And, because teachers are widely admired and well paid, capable young people choose teaching as a profession. Our country will not get top students to enter teaching until we demonstrate in these ways that those in the profession are highly valued.

One Maryland school system has shown this can be done. Montgomery County Public Schools has been carefully studying the top-performing countries for years and using what they learned to successfully raise student achievement and graduation rates, boost SAT scores and narrow achievement gaps. Its reforms include targeting more funding to schools with high populations of poor, minority and non-English-speaking students; instituting a uniform curriculum across the district; encouraging all students to take rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and exams; and working hand-in-hand with county teachers and their union to create and implement professional support systems designed to improve instructional performance and practice.

Maryland and the entire nation need an education reform agenda that draws from our greatest strengths and takes into account our unique characteristics. We should stop pretending that binding teachers to arbitrary accountability measures, increasing the number of charter schools, or pursuing some other uniquely American solution will propel us back to the top of the world's best education systems. We need a better system, and we know where to look for examples.

Marc Tucker is president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. His email is mtucker@ncee.org. Jerry D. Weast has served as superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools for the past 12 years.

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