On Point in Education: State's schools doing things right

In the height of the Reagan era, a report emerged from the National Commission on Excellence in Education titled “A Nation at Risk.” This report drew on various data sources to profess how broken the U.S. education system was, and how far behind other countries we had become. It outlined a number of steps that the U.S. needed to take in order to respond to the increasing changes taking place in the global educational environment. This landmark report spawned countless reform movements, and continues to influence our perspective on the efficacy of our work in educating America’s children. It established the perspective of the educational glass as half-empty.

Fast forward to 2013. Early December saw the release of scores on the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA), an annual test conducted across the world to 15-year-old students. The results continued a familiar pattern: the U.S. is stuck in the middle, well behind many developed and developing nations. Indeed, student achievement has been relatively flat in the U.S. since we began national and international assessments over four decades ago.

This is helpful to remember, as it allows us to move away from the perspective that we were once the highest performing country. We have never been a world leader in student achievement on comparative international assessments.

The purported stagnation that pundits point to in our schools furthers the political message we’ve grown accustomed to regarding education: We don’t measure up. What do we need to do to address this discrepancy and what can we learn from consistent, high-performing countries? In addition, which metrics should we be leveraging to move our schools forward?

Our work with the Common Core may be a move in the right direction. The PISA is designed differently than other assessments our students take, with its focus on inquiry-based problems that require novel approaches to familiar formulas. It moves astride the Common Core with a bent towards the analytical and creative, and many believe that PISA scores will improve with our national move to the Common Core.

Of course, when one looks more deeply at the scores on the PISA, there are some points of light. While only three states take the assessment every three years in a rotation (Massachusetts, Florida, and Connecticut took part in the PISA in 2012), a familiar outlier continued high performance. Massachusetts, whose scores closely mirror Vermont’s as top performers on the national assessment called NAEP, scored from 4th to 10th in the world. While Vermont continues to be a high performer in reading, math, and science, there are lessons we can take from high-performing countries.

Most high-performing countries maintain a singular focus on students from all demographic backgrounds. We must continue to work to serve all students, and approach educational support holistically. There are countless examples of strong partnerships across Vermont between schools and both public and private organizations, and these systems are vital to support all students in making significant learning gains. A belief in every student is paramount to the success of our education systems.

We also need to continue to focus “early and often.” Overall, high-performing countries have complex and significant social, emotional, and academic resources for students that support continued growth and wellbeing from birth onwards. There is substantial research over the last two decades that supports the importance of early childhood education and its effect on the academic trajectory. Vermont is a leading innovator on pre-K education, and our students will continue to flourish if we remain committed to establishing a strong start towards academic success.

The PISA scores are important, but we must remember to contextualize their significance, and reflect on our strengths. We have much to learn, and much to hold dear.

Editor’s note: Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.


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