U.S. students still lagging in international assessments

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The triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have been released, and students in the United States, when compared with students in 70 other countries, remain in the middle of the rankings: just about average in science and reading, and below average in math.

"The latest U.S. PISA achievement results are disappointing but not surprising," AFT President Randi Weingarten says. "They were predictable given the impact of the last 15 years of U.S. education policies combined with continuing state disinvestment following the 2008 recession. Thirty-one states still spend less per pupil than before the recession."

PISA 2015

Twenty percent of American students registered as low performers in the PISA results, compared with a 21 percent average among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but double the percentage in higher-performing countries: Estonia, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Macao, Singapore and Vietnam. Nine percent of U.S. students were top performers, compared with 8 percent in OECD countries and 15 percent in Japan, Singapore and Chinese Taipei.

Educators and policymakers will be studying countries like Germany, Canada, Hong Kong (China) and Estonia, which showed high rankings, for examples of how to combine a high level of equity, use of tests for diagnostic (not punitive) purposes, and respect for teachers' professional knowledge and judgment to yield improved student performance. On the flip side, Finland—with a government that is investing less on public education and moving away from its student- and teacher-centered strategies—will be scrutinized as having lost ground in the past few years.

Apart from country comparisons, PISA also showed that public school systems worldwide outperformed charter and private schools. This "underlines the need to support and invest in our public schools with policies and programs that work," says Weingarten.

To dig deeper into how PISA might inform improvements in U.S. public schools, Weingarten moderated a panel discussion of legislators, education leaders and advocates on Dec. 7. The AFT sponsored the panel, held in a congressional office building, with the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Conference of State Legislatures and OECD.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, opened the conversation by saying the U.S. must do better, and he emphasized the importance of equal access to high-quality education: "Educational opportunity is a right, and must be made available to all students."

Weingarten agreed, and pointed to PISA numbers indicating equity in U.S. public schools has improved. "Equity is a fundamental building block to excellence, and PISA numbers show we are turning a corner," she said. Socio-economic status accounted for 11 percent of the variation in student performance in science in 2015; in 2011, that figure was 17 percent.

Still, panelists agreed the overall rankings for the United States are discouraging. They looked to the recently passed ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) as one promising opportunity to strengthen public education by increasing equity for disadvantaged children, providing more state and local control, and holding charter schools more accountable.

More specifically, panelists opined that teacher recognition is key. "The single most important thing we can do is to elevate the profession," said Christopher Edley Jr., president of the Opportunity Institute. "It's no mystery" that the United States falls behind other countries in education, he said: We need to pay teachers more, prepare them more thoroughly and overhaul how we spend professional development funds.

Incorporating teachers into policymaking is also key. "Listen to the collective wisdom of the faculty, and you will hear best practices," said Weingarten, who also lauded project-based learning as a pathway to creative, critical thinking and student success. "Teachers are the solution," said Mona Al-Hayani, a high school teacher from Toledo, Ohio, and an AFT member. She suggested giving teachers more control over the curriculum, and more opportunities to train other teachers.

Additional solutions included providing more wraparound services for students struggling to overcome social issues such as hunger, drug addiction and absentee parents; and paying attention to state legislation, where much of education policy is created.

Panelists praised the OECD's key findings from PISA 2015 for the United States and a comprehensive study of improvements at the state level, "No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State," which was compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, as helpful tools to use moving forward. The AFT also has a page of PISA resources.

Other participants on the panel were Indiana State Rep. Robert Behning, Indiana House education chair; Chris Minnich, executive director, Council of Chief State School Officers; Washington State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, Washington House education chair; and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

[Virginia Myers, AFT press release]