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Who is Failing Our Schools?

Jon Whittle

When more than 5,000 American students sat down with old-fashioned pen and paper to take a two-hour test that would show how they stacked up in reading, math and science against their peers from around the world, the results were alarming.

Kids from China, South Korea, Finland, Australia and many other countries had bested ours . For American parents and educators, the news dropped like a bomb. “We have to see this as a wake-up call,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.” The exam that started the furor was the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), given every three years to 15-year-olds around the globe by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a global group that promotes growth and trade. Among the 65 countries that participated, the U.S. ranked 15th in reading, 23rd in science and a dismal 31st in math.

The problem isn’t our kids—they’re as smart as kids anywhere. The problem is our schools, many of which haven’t kept up with a changing world. “When I was a teacher, parents would walk into the classroom, see the line of alphabet letters, and say ‘I love this—it looks just like it did when I was a kid!’ ” says Melinda George, vice president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “But think about it: Would you want your doctor’s office to look the same as it did twenty or thirty years ago?” The hard truth is that other countries’ educational systems have surged ahead, while we haven’t modernized fast enough.

“For parents, this is a reminder that it’s not just about my child’s report card on the refrigerator. It’s about our economic and social future,” says Molly McCloskey, managing director for Whole Child Programs at the ASCD , an international membership organization of educators and a former teacher and school counselor. Our kids need the knowledge and skills to be competitive in a global economy, and ultimately it’s what happens in individual classrooms that makes the difference. The very best U.S. schools are already implementing innovative programs to take American education into the 21st century.

Following are four key issues that stood out in the PISA results, how the best schools in the world and the U.S. are handling them and what you can do, too.

Lesson 1: Show Teachers How Much You Appreciate Them

What's going on around the world

The highest-performing countries tend to spend money on teacher quality, not quantity. Making the profession appeal to the best and brightest pays off: In Finland, the only Western country to make the PISA top three, 6,600 aspiring teachers applied for just 660 spots last year in the nation’s elementary school teacher-preparation program.

The lesson

“We have to attract the best and brightest, then train them, support them, keep them,” says Rebecca Pringle, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association. To make this happen, however, we might have to sacrifice something we hold dear: small class sizes. “The United States has spent a lot of money trying to reduce class size,” explains

PISA director Andreas Schleicher. “If you look at some of the high-performing countries, they’ve done just the opposite. ” Paying teachers competitively will attract stronger candidates who are more likely to succeed, even with larger classes. And having more children exposed to truly skilled teachers is sure to pay off long-term.

Whats going on in the U.S.

The Boston Teacher Residency program, run by the public schools, gives new teachers valuable hands-on training. Beginning teachers work under the guidance of an experienced mentor teacher, while also taking courses to earn a master’s degree in education. Other school systems are taking different approaches. Amy Hilbrich Davis, a mom in Stilwell, KS, says that her school district created “Professional Learning Communities” (PLCs). “One hour each week, our teachers work together to collaborate, communicate and discuss how best to instruct their students .”

What you can do

Support your child’s teacher by becoming involved in the class or the school community . Teachers who feel supported and appreciated will also be more motivatedin the classroom.

Lesson 2: Set High Expectations for Your Kids—They Can Meet Them!

What's going on around the world

In multiethnic, multilingual Singapore, professionals work with families before their children are old enough for school to help prepare them for eventual academic success. Other high-achieving countries make sure all kids have the resources they need to achieve, and provide extra help during the school day when necessary. In Finland, 30 percent of teachers’ time is reserved for working with kids outside of class. Which country allocates the fewest resources for teaching outside the classroom? The United States.

The lesson

Yale University law professor Amy Chua, J.D., sparked a furor with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about her traditional Chinese parenting that demanded her daughters put in long hours of hard work with little play. But many now admit there are lessons to be learned about expecting more from our children.

What's going on in the U.S.  

The Houston YES Prep Public Schools (a group of ten public charter schools), for example, serve mostly students from low-income, immigrant families, but it’s expected that every single one of them will go to college. Teachers monitor struggling students and make themselves available for extra help in person and on school-issued cell phones. “The kids don’t have a chance to get behind,” says parent Alma Lopez. Nearly 100 percent of YES graduates have entered college. 

What you can do

Demand more of your child’s school. Secretary Duncan recalls that when President Obama asked the president of South Korea what his biggest educational challenge was, the leader replied: “The parents. Even the poorest families were insisting on importing thousands of English teachers so their children could learn English in the first grade, instead of having to wait until second grade.” Says Duncan: “I wish parents were beating down my door demanding a better education for their children now!”

Lesson 3: Encourage Kids to Learn Together

What's going on around the world

“The common practice of tracking—separating students by academic ability—can work against students and schools,” says PISA’s Schleicher. Top countries keep kids of all abilities together and train teachers to spot struggles early and tailor lessons to individual needs.

The lesson  

Research suggests that honors and gifted classes hurt the U.S. education system because they reinforce

the idea that we should expect less of some students than others. Even if “those kids” aren’t yours, their difficulties reflect on the whole system.

What's going on in the U.S.

While there are usually resources available for kids who really struggle, it’s less likely there’s aid for those who are just a bit behind. Some schools are now targeting these students for extra help. For example, the Castle Complex—eight elementary schools in Kaneohe, HI—earned a federal grant to start a free before- and afterschool program for these kids.

What you can do

Support programs that encourage teachers to individualize schoolwork. Students should be challenged at their own levels and evaluated regularly to make sure they’re achieving.

Lesson 4: Celebrate Your Kids' Strengths

What's going on around the world

The U.S. can learn from some Asian countries’ deep cultural respect for teachers and their emphasis on hard, sustained effort , says Yong Zhao, Ph.D., an international education consultant and University of Oregon associate dean, who was born and raised in China.

But Nicholas Kristof, a journalist who covers Asia for The New York Times, wrote earlier this year that when he speaks to Chinese parents, “many complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance— and for trying to make learning exciting and not a chore.”

The lesson

“The U.S. has a long history of valuing a broader type of education, a diversity of talents. You can be a cheerleader, a singer, a writer or a math geek,” notes Zhao. “Whatever you are, it’s okay, which is very necessary to build a strong nation. The U.S. also values children’s views, passions and interests, and that instills a sense of commitment and confidence.”

What's going on in the U.S.

One current movement in American education is called “21st Century Skills.” Its core belief is that teachers need to embed things like critical thinking, creativity and collaboration within basic subjects in order to teach children the kind of skills they’ll need to be prepared for college, life and work. It’s been a tough sell to some school administrators, who face pressure to show results on standardized tests. The Obama Administration recently budgeted $350 million to support states in developing new standardized tests that will tap these skills.

What you can do

Even as we look enviously at other nations’ high test scores, let’s remember that PISA superstars like Shanghai and Singapore are sending education delegates to the U.S. to learn how our system promotes innovation and creativity. According to Zhao, it’s right for the U.S. to look abroad for guidance. But we should also remember that we still do a lot of things right. In fact, maybe we can all learn from each other. If we do, kids everywhere will benefit.

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