It’s long been known that America’s school kids haven’t measured well compared with international peers. Now, there’s a new twist: Adults don’t either. In math, reading and problem-solving using technology – all skills considered critical for global competitiveness and economic strength – American adults scored below the international average on a global test, according to results released last week.
Adults in Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland and multiple other countries scored significantly higher than the United States in all three areas on the test. Beyond basic reading and math, respondents were tested on activities such as calculating mileage reimbursement due to a salesman, sorting email and comparing food expiration dates on grocery store tags.
Not only did Americans score poorly compared to many international competitors, the findings reinforced just how large the gap is between the nation’s high- and low-skilled workers and how hard it is to move ahead when your parents haven’t. In both reading and math, for example, those with college-educated parents did better than those whose parents did not complete high school. The study, called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, found that it was easier on average to overcome this and other barriers to literacy overseas than in the United States.
Researchers tested about 166,000 people ages 16 to 65 in more than 20 countries and subnational regions. The test was developed and released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is made up of mostly industrialized member countries. The Education Department’s Center for Education Statistics participated.
The findings were equally grim for many European countries – Italy and Spain, among the hardest hit by the recession and debt crisis, ranked at the bottom across generations. Unemployment is well over 25 percent in Spain and over 12 percent in Italy. Spain has drastically cut education spending, drawing student street protests.
There is a direct correlation between budget cuts and school’s performance in preparing our children for college. In New York State, primary and middle school students walking through the doors when school opened this year are already deemed academically unprepared by the state. Just 31 percent of students in third through eighth grade scored proficient in math and in English on the latest round of state standardized tests.
In some school districts, particularly those with high poverty levels, entire grades of students failed the tests. The test scores show New York’s children are not learning enough and that the vast majority of students graduating from public schools are not prepared for life after high school, according to the state Education Department.
What sets this school year apart is the tremendous anxiety the tests have caused for children, teachers, and parents — most of whom are still waiting to find if their children measure up.
School officials are scrambling to figure out how they’re going to offer remedial help for the hordes of new students who will now need it. They’re also bracing for the wave of parent reactions once the test scores arrive in the mail.
In California, scores on the annual Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments slipped by a fraction of a percentage point this year as schools dealt with ongoing budget reductions and the transition to the Common Core State Standards. Schools across the state continued to deal with the effects of years of budget cuts and financial uncertainties throughout the 2012-13 school years. Led by Governor Brown, voter approval of Proposition 30 in 2012 averted $6 billion in further cuts to education budgets.
This is a complex issue, however, given the fact over the last four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained flat, and other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared to other countries. There is definitely a fundamental break down in the way we are approaching public education in the entire western world, because the same result are also evident in Europe and the UK as well.
What we do know is that in K-12, we know more about what works. Of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It’s astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.
Unfortunately, compared to the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop, and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback. To flip the curve, we have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective, and transfer those skills to others — so more students can benefit from top teachers and high achievement. Compared to other countries, America has spent more and achieved less. We need to build exceptional teacher personnel systems that identify great teaching, reward it, and help every teacher get better. This includes evaluating how our teachers are educated at the college level as well.
We also need everyone who has a stake in the outcome (parents, teachers, and potential employers) to get involved at the school district level. We need to begin to look at what we offer students as potential career choices. They need to have a say on what THEY want to do. Many are not college or academic material, but that does not mean they should be destined to flip burgers all of their lives. We need technical and industrial core curriculums developed and supported financially by business entities. But most of all we need to be involved. School is NOT day care! We don’t need cops in our schools hauling kids away for kissing or pointing their fingers like a gun, we need parents, community leaders, and employers monitoring what is being taught. Education should not be conform and obey, it must be learn and grow.