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PD Editorial: American schools should study abroad to succeed

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The United States may be putting on a dominant performance in the Rio Olympics, but when it comes to academics, America lags behind much of the world.

If we want to make up ground, it behooves us to learn from the countries whose students outperform ours.

A bipartisan committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures did just that. In a recently released report, 22 legislators and a dozen staff and education experts took a hard look at how well America’s students perform compared to the rest of the world.

They started with grim data. In 2012, the most recent year for which they had international data, American 15-year-olds ranked 24th in reading, 36th in math and 28th in science out of 65 nations. Each was lower than just three years before.

Some may be content with sitting comfortably in the middle of the pack, but if America wants to prepare the next generation to compete in a global marketplace, it must aspire to do better. Incremental improvement won’t be enough for America to catch up with the likes of Korea, China, Finland and even Estonia.

The lawmakers at the NCSL therefore put aside their Republican and Democrat hats to look at what nations at the top of the rankings are doing differently.

Some clear lessons emerged:

Education starts at home. Families must have tools and support to help students learn. When students struggle, they need to be able to turn to their schools for extra help.

Great education requires great teachers. Top countries increase rigor, expectations and the social status of teachers, well compensating those who meet the challenge.

A career and technical education path is available for students who prefer an applied education.

Individual education reforms are not adopted piecemeal but as part of a comprehensive national strategy.

To make a lot of that work, the United States will need to reevaluate its priorities and its definition of progress.

To date, lawmakers, as with administrators, have shown an affinity if not preoccupation with testing. Common Core is the most recent iteration. Other countries use tests to assess student progress, but they use them with less frequency and greater depth. Students are tested only at key junctures in their educational careers and with exams that rely more heavily on essays and less on multiple-choice questions.

The hitch is that grading essays requires humans to read them and provide useful feedback, which requires more funding.

A commitment to change in U.S. schools will require the funding to back it up. Nationally, the country spends about $11,000 per student per year. California lags behind that at about $9,600, ranking with the likes of Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas.

The United States may carve out a uniquely American path to student success by continuing to do what it has been doing, by continuing to treat teachers like factory workers and relying on standardized tests that encourage teaching to the test over teaching to the student. But that formula has yet to produce positive results. Sometimes the hardest lesson of all is accepting that what you’ve been doing isn’t working.

If America wants to improve public education, it needs to learn what works and then train to succeed.

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