Reflections on U.S. Education in Response to PISA International Education Report

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released its report noting a decline in the global rankings of U.S. students.

U.S. students ranked 25th in math, 20th in science and 11th in reading in 2009. By 2012, their rankings had fallen to 29th in math, 24th in science and 21st in reading.

Public charters, private schools, vouchers, smaller classes, longer school days, more funding, increased curriculum standards, more student testing and certification exams for educators have all been implemented.

Yet scores on international standardized tests continue to decline, signaling that there is no “one size fits all” solution for improving America’s education system, and noting our unwavering commitment to standardize tests as the primary measure of educational quality.

I have friends and family who are public school teachers, as well as those involved in the school choice/reform movement. This has led me to conclude that improving the education system requires a multi-faceted approach, combining the best practices of both public education advocates and school reformers.

This will require ongoing analysis of the significant factors influencing education, of which I would emphasize four: standardized testing, educators, parents and students.

Standardized testing is necessary to evaluate educational progress nationwide and worldwide. Nevertheless, personal experience leads me to conclude that the emphasis placed on test scores can be problematic.

Throughout primary school I received mostly A’s and B’s. When I took the SAT I didn’t use any preparatory courses or books. Not surprisingly, I scored a 1020. I went on to have a 3.94 GPA in undergraduate and a 3.93 GPA in graduate school.

While I likely could have improved my SAT score using preparatory resources, I recall feeling that the test contained oddly phrased questions as well as questions that were matters of interpretation, requiring the test-taker to select a multiple choice answer based on their best guess as to the test author’s view.

I feel the grades I received from educators is a more accurate assessment of my academic progress than my SAT score. I wonder how many educators, parents and students might share similar experiences and sentiments?

Yet most schools are judged to be failing if students do not succeed on state-level exams—the primary school equivalent of the SAT—which offers a limited and, in my experience, incomplete (if not inaccurate) assessment of educational quality and a student’s abilities.

The other three factors—educators, parents and students—should be discussed together as student success results from the combined effort of all three.

Too often responsibility for a student’s success or failure at the primary school level is placed solely on the educators. As a result, too little is expected of parents and the students themselves.

My experience has been that in schools receiving failing marks, parental involvement is often limited and student behavior and work ethic can be hindrances.

Sometimes lack of parental involvement is a factor of poverty. If parents work outside the home at multiple jobs and have long or irregular hours, this makes it difficult to help children with homework, be involved in PTA or meet with teachers. Local churches could help by partnering with local schools to offer tutoring and mentoring.

Language is another issue. If parents are not native English speakers, they will not be able to offer much help with homework and meeting with their student’s teachers would require a translator to have a constructive conversation. Again, local churches could help by offering ESL courses.

Finally, unengaged parenting is most detrimental to quality education. Consider how difficult it would be to teach if you were spending significant portions of each class on disciplining misbehaving students, teaching basic social skills or trying to encourage students to do any work at all.

Moreover, what if students didn’t fear any consequences—for example, going to the principal’s office or receiving in-school suspension—but actually welcomed this because it meant they didn’t have to listen to the lesson or do any work?

The role of parents in teaching their children how to behave, helping them understand the importance of education and assisting them with homework is an important and often overlooked factor in education.

To put it bluntly, should schools receive failing marks due to low standardized test scores if they are filled with students who have little interest in learning, do not come to school with respect for their teachers and who regularly misbehave despite the best efforts of teachers to keep them in line?

Without universalizing this experience to all “failing schools,” I believe it is the often-overlooked experience in many of them. As such, access to quality education—whether in public, private or charter schools—should be available for everyone, but no amount of effort on the part of educators can make up for students who don’t give their best effort and parents who aren’t involved in their child’s education.

I am a firm believer in public education, yet I believe education reformers have played, and will continue to play, an important role in improving the U.S. education system. Both sides care about educating students and are working hard to find ways to address the education struggles in the U.S. even if they disagree on the means.

Students are best served when both sides work to find common ground on which collaboration, rather than conflict, can result.

In discussing the recent PISA report, NBC analyst Willie Geist summarized my point well: “The reaction to the study was amazing to me, in which you had all of these special interest groups all the way across the board saying, ‘It’s not our fault’”

“Even when there is a big national crisis that comes up, everyone goes into their bunkers and protects their own interests,” Geist continued. “We don’t need that point of view. We need a point of view that says, ‘Wow, we’ve got a problem here; what do we do together to fix it.”

Whether you prefer public education approaches or those of education reformers, improving education will require collaboration in order to effectively evaluate the standards by which success or failure is determined, and to emphasize the important roles and responsibility of educators, parents and the students.