As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Every Student Succeeds Act, new data from the OECD’s Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA) offers insight on how well we are educating our students, especially those facing the greatest disadvantages.
While the overall results reinforce the challenges we face, the data also highlight significant progress that merits the attention of political and education leaders, especially as we approach a changing of the guard in Washington.
Educators and advocates across the ideological spectrum are united in their focus on improving outcomes for kids growing up in low-income communities. And according to PISA lead researcher Andreas Schleicher, "Among OECD, there's not a country that has been more successful in closing the socioeconomic gap than the United States." One-third of American students in the lowest income quartile – those who are most likely to face the challenges of deep-seated, generational poverty – now score in the top quarter of all students worldwide in science, up from just 19 percent of these students ten years ago. While we still have much to do to close stubborn, longstanding achievement gaps this progress is worth celebrating and provides a springboard further growth.
While kids near the bottom of the performance distribution have improved, performance among those near the top remains stagnant. As Amanda Ripley writes in the New York Times, “PISA gauges students’ ability to think [rather than] assess what teenagers have memorized,” which makes it a useful yardstick for students’ likelihood of success in a complex, knowledge-based, global economy. Countries that consistently score the highest have all, according to Ripley, “applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms” – standards very much like those outlined in the Common Core State Standards, which the President-elect and his expected nominee for Secretary of Education have said they do not support.
In this context, state and district leaders must remain steadfast in establishing and maintaining rigorous, Common Core-like standards that ensure students graduate college and career ready. They must also provide access to the associated training, instructional materials, assessments and other supports teachers need to help their students achieve at those high levels. As Mr. Schleicher shared with Ms. Ripley, “I’m confident the Common Core is going to have a long-term impact. Patience may be the biggest challenge.”
One of the most telling analyses from OECD demonstrates that the U.S. still does not get nearly as much learning bang for our education buck as other countries. No matter what one believes about how much we spend educating our children, the PISA data reinforce the fact that we must do better in how well we use those resources.
The most successful schools and systems do this by creating a context where all students can learn. That means organizing school-level resources to address the most critical student needs; fostering deep, content-focused collaboration among teachers; building and leveraging instructional expertise to improve the quality of instruction and foster cycles of continuous improvement in each classroom; and creating compelling opportunities for teachers to grow and expand their impact on kids. Crucially, it also means ensuring that the structures, systems and policies are in place to support these efforts within schools.
Meaningful sustained improvements in education are hard-won, but the most recent PISA results provide evidence that we are in fact on the right track. At this critical moment in American history, the results reinforce the need to maintain our focus on improving outcomes for our highest-need students, while continuing to raise the bar for all students. To lock in these gains and accelerate our progress, we must also ensure that we deploy every education dollar as thoughtfully and strategically as possible. If we organize our people, time, and money in this way, we can move closer to our goal of ensuring that every school succeeds for every student.