Commentary: Is everything we know about school reform wrong?

The Kansas City StarMarch 23, 2011 

By now most Americans are used to those vexing reports that come out periodically showing U.S. students performing well behind their global peers. We've come up with a convenient set of excuses to explain these poor results. We blame teachers unions, or stingy, budget-cutting governments. We complain about the burden of endless testing. Or we shrug and say it's the poor and the immigrants that are dragging down U.S. performance statistics. It can't be helped.

All these assumptions and more are challenged by a new report prepared by McGraw-Hill Research Foundation. The report, titled "What the U.S. Can Learn from the World's Most Successful Education Reform Efforts," compared the U.S. education system to those of the highest performing countries as ranked by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to the most recent PISA, the U.S. was ranked on average at 19th among more than 50 countries for science; we did a bit better in reading (15th) and ranked a deplorable 27th in math. Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Canadian and Finnish students left ours in the dust.

The report found four key differences between the successful countries and the United States:

-In successful countries, teaching is held in much higher esteem as a profession than in the U.S. Entering the profession is difficult, and candidates are drawn from the top of their university classes. These countries provide more resources for teacher training and professional development, and they give teachers more responsibility for leading reform.

-High-performing nations establish rigorous achievement standards, premised on "the proposition that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels and necessary that they do so," according to the report.

-The U.S. spends more money per pupil than almost all countries studied but lavishes resources on the more economically advantaged schools. In high-performing nations, budgets are often much smaller and extra resources go to disadvantaged schools.

-The U.S. is no more stratified socio-economically than the average country studied, but class differences have a much more pronounced effect on educational achievement here than in high-performing nations.

What can be done? A lot, but unfortunately the U.S. appears to be heading in the opposite direction from the study recommendations, except when it comes to establishing universal standards.

A good place to start would be to upgrade how we value teachers. As a profession, education is not held in high esteem in the U.S. We're too busy blaming teachers to allow them to be part of the solution.

Congress is on the cusp of overhauling No Child Left Behind, with some states looking at even stricter correlations between teacher pay, job security and student testing. State houses across the nation are slashing education budgets. Teachers unions, in particular, are under attack. And much of the backlash is less about improving education than about antagonism against unions in general.

American teachers are better paid than their peers in higher-performing countries, but they are underpaid compared to similarly educated workers in the U.S. That's one way to measure the value of a profession.

Perhaps more important than boosting pay are steps to put teachers in charge of policing the standards of their profession, and to give them resources for mentoring and professional development. Principals should be chosen from the ranks of the most successful teachers. Testing and assessment should serve not to punish schools, as in the U.S., but to assess which students and classrooms need more attention, as in high-performing countries.

When teachers are given both resources and responsibility to help underperforming students, even school systems with strong teachers unions, such as that in Ontario, Canada, perform at a high level.

Education has become yet another sideshow in our poisoned politics. As the McGraw-Hill report suggests, we don't seem to be on the right track. Setting ourselves straight will require some serious changes to the political status quo - for example, the way we fund public schools. There's an enormous amount of work to be done; the first item on the agenda should be to question our comfortable assumptions.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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