Who is Failing Our Schools?
A new international survey finds that American students aren’t developing as many math, science, or even language skills as kids in other countries. Here’s what education reforms it will take to put our kids on top
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.