In a report titled "Benchmarking for Success," high-level state officials call for action to ensure that American students are globally competitive. Education leaders, the report advises, should renew the focus on international benchmarking and look toward other countries for help in drafting state achievement standards.
The report’s advisory group, which consisted of governors, state education commissioners, business executives, researchers, and other officials, identified five transformative steps the U.S. education system should take to produce more globally competitive students. The group was convened by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc.
Here, according to the report, are the five steps American education should take to produce more globally competitive students:
"1. Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12;
"2. Leverage states’ collective influence to ensure textbooks, digital media, curricula and assessments are aligned to internationally benchmarked standards and draw on lessons from high-performing nations;
"3. Revise state policies for recruiting, preparing, developing, and supporting teachers and school leaders to reflect the ‘human capital’ practices of top-performing nations and states around the world;
"4. Hold schools and systems accountable through monitoring, interventions, and support to ensure consistently high performance, drawing upon international best practices; and
"5. Measure state-level education performance globally by examining student achievement and attainment in an international context to ensure that students are receiving the education they need to compete in the 21st century economy."
Said advisory group co-chair Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona and current secretary of Homeland Security for the Obama administration, "The time is now; we must ensure that our students are prepared to compete and innovate in the 21st century . . . ‘Benchmarking for Success’ is a call to action and provides a clear path to follow."
Released after about a year of research and analysis, the report says the United States is falling behind other countries in human capital.
"American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science achievement on the most recent international assessments in 2006. At the same time, the U.S. ranked high in inequity, with the third largest gap in science scores between students from different socioeconomic groups," the advisory group wrote in the report.
The numbers are taken from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment as reported in 2006 and 2003. Finland ranked first out of 30 industrialized countries in 2006 in math and science and in 2003 was first out of 29 countries in reading and second in problem solving. Korea came in first in math in 2006, second in reading in 2003, and first in problem solving in 2003.
The study found that "[U.S.] students are falling behind in some areas compared to other countries," said Ilene Berman, program director in the education division of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.
Berman, who served as a staff member for the advisory group, said the group examined areas where state education leaders could make changes, giving ideas for action that aren’t unique to certain cultural or structural school systems.
Berman said one of the things that state education systems already have begun to do is upgrade their state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards.
"We can look at what other nations are doing [for guidance]. Some things we can take from other countries, but we may need to adapt them to make sense for the United States," Berman said.
The report cites a study by Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed of McKinsey and Co. that shows the best-performing nations begin by recruiting top talent to teaching. For example, Korea recruits from the top 5 percent of graduates and Finland from the top 10 percent.
In the U.S., on the other hand, the likelihood that a highly talented female in the top 10 percent of her graduating class would become a teacher shrank by half–from 20 percent to about 10 percent–between 1964 and 2000.
"College students with high SAT and ACT scores are less likely to train to become teachers, less likely to take a teaching job, and less likely to stay in the classroom after a few years," the advisory board reported.
In addition, schools and school systems should be held accountable through a balanced system of monitoring, interventions, and support to ensure consistently high performance, the report recommends.
The report points to Great Britain as an example, where the nation’s education system reportedly monitors day-to-day school operations and each school’s capacity for change. When the Office for Standards in Education finds poor student outcomes and poor-quality leadership, it calls for stronger measures than it would for a school with bad test scores but competent leadership, the report notes. Berman said a version of the British system is being used in New York City schools.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act was intended to provide this kind of school accountability in the U.S., but the law’s critics say it set unrealistic goals and is too punitive, rather than supportive, of schools.
Berman said the board is considering impaneling a group to look at assessment issues. States are interested in learning about best practices that have been used in other nations, she said.
"For a long time, we have looked insularly," Berman said. "It’s time to look at where good practices are happening anywhere in the world."
Although the report is geared toward state leaders, the advisory group mentioned a few things that could be done at the federal level.
"First," said the report, "federal policy makers should offer funds to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five [recommended] actions steps. At the same time, policy makers should boost federal research and development investments to provide state leaders with more and better information about international best practices, and [they] should help states develop streamlined assessment strategies that facilitate cost-effective international comparisons of student performance."
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