AFT project offers tools to understand international comparisons

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Every time a new international comparison of educational achievement is published, whatever public attention it receives invariably zeroes in on where the United States ranks and how our school spending stacks up against the education budgets of other nations.

"We want teachers, AFT leaders, policymakers and citizens in general to go beyond the page in the report that has the rankings," says Rob Weil, director of field programs in the AFT's educational issues department. "When they turn the page, they will quickly see that rankings and raw spending figures do not tell the whole story."

A project launched over the summer is focused on providing AFT leaders and members across the country with some new tools to help them and others in their communities move beyond the traditional focus when the next Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are released in December by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

An important part of the rest of the story is that the recommendations the OECD has made over the years for educational improvements on the basis of the PISA rankings are strongly aligned to the AFT's Quality Education Agenda. When AFT President Randi Weingarten urges AFT members to work with their communities to reclaim the promise of public education, her vision for what is needed would advance all elements of the PISA program.

Weil and Patricia Keefer, director of the AFT's international affairs department, are leading an effort to make sure that whole story is being told about the PISA results.

"That means that Americans should not only look at where our students rank against the kids in other mostly highly developed nations, but they also should consider how the day-to-day lives of those students vary from one country to another," Keefer says. "For example, among PISA's highest-performing school systems, U.S. students have one of the highest poverty rates—a factor that has a significant impact on academic performance."

In addition, Weil adds, PISA and other international comparisons usually point out that U.S. spending on education is among the highest in the world. However, he points out, they seldom take note of a key fact about that spending: It is the high cost of college in the United States—not K-12 schools—that pushes U.S. education expenditures higher than most other nations.

The effort to make sure leaders and members have the background and materials needed to respond to the PISA results will include a webpage with links to information, a tool kit with guidance on answering questions about the rankings, and a webinar on the international comparisons and the constructive use of the findings. The background information and tools first took shape as part of a well-received presentation that Weil and Keefer made during the AFT's TEACH conference over the summer.

Perhaps the biggest issue that gets lost in the reporting on PISA rankings, Weil says, is the question of equity in resources and support for public education in the United States. Factors affecting equity include the wide funding disparities from district to district or school to school, and the impact of poverty on academic performance.

Another part of the popular school "reform" platform that is called into question by PISA is the push for a longer academic year and more hours in the school day. The fact is that the United States already has one of the longest instructional school years in the world, as well as a longer school day for students than many of the highest-performing nations.

"While it is true that many of the high-ranking countries have long school days," Keefer says, "the extra hours are for teachers—not students. They have less in-class time than U.S. schools, but they use more hours each day for teacher collaboration, preparation and lesson planning. It is one of the keys to success."

After the 2009 PISA results were released, the OECD published a book that presented lessons the United States could learn from its performance rankings. Those lessons, Weil and Keefer both observe, read like the Reclaiming the Promise call to action.

They point to just a couple of examples:

  • The OECD says that if a country wants better academic achievement, "it is incumbent on the political and social leaders to persuade the citizens of that country to make the choices needed to show that it values education more than other areas of national interest." The AFT's vision for reclaiming the promise of public education is to have great neighborhood schools, where educators have the tools and resources to meet the individual needs of every child, regardless of economic, social or cultural background.

  • The OECD says a nation's commitment to high educational performance can be measured by how it treats educators. Are teachers paid salaries comparable to what others with the same level of education receive? How do parents answer when asked if they would want their child to become a teacher? The AFT believes that reclaiming the promise of public education will bring back the joy of teaching and learning, will ensure that teachers are well-prepared and supported, and will open the eyes of the community to the good things happening in our schools.

[Tom Lansworth]

October 4, 2013