April 23, 2012

Education: Part One

The first in our series on schools in the United States.

Jessica: Over the next few weeks, we are focusing on education, taking an honest look at how U.S. education stacks up against other countries. We travelled around the world to find out and to see if there is anything we can learn in our series Education: A Study Abroad.

Every year, 50 million students walk into America’s public schools. They are taught by teachers who have lower salaries and less training than their international peers. The most disadvantaged students get the least experienced teachers. Students in Massachusetts are expected to learn more than students in Mississippi. And 25% don’t graduate on time. Yet Americans spend more on education than almost any other country in the world, paying a whopping $525 billion per year. But compared to international students, American teens perform average in reading and science and below average in math. This wasn’t always the case

Andreas Schleicher: The U.S. was clearly number one in the 60s and 70s but then what has happened, simply, is that many countries have caught up or surpassed those kinds of qualification levels.

Jessica: Andreas Schleicher has been called “the world’s schoolmaster.” As one of the leading experts on education, he says the United States used to have the best education system in the world and that led to America having the strongest and largest economy in the world. He says it is because of what the U.S. did at the turn of the 20th century. It was the first country to provide young people with a free, public education. As a result attendance in public schools rose dramatically. In 1910, only 9% of Americans had high school diplomas. By 1935, that number had jumped to 40%. This educated workforce spurred the country’s economic growth.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill made higher education a possibility for returning war veterans. This helped U.S. colleges expand and improve. As a result, thousands of professionals entered the labor force, spurring another economic expansion. By the 1970s, most people believed the best way to get a job and have an economically secure life was earning a college degree.

So what changed?

Schleicher: It’s not so much a question of change in the U.S., it’s more a question of change anywhere else in the world. It’s no longer sufficient to say I am better than I was last year or I’m better than my neighbor. Today, we live in a global labor market and what matters in this global economy is how well you compete with students in China, Europe and everywhere in the world.

Jessica: Schleicher is in charge of PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment. Every three years, PISA tests the reading, math and science skills of 15 year olds.

In the latest PISA, out of 65 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading and 17th in science and 25th in math.

How does this test highlight good education systems? Doesn’t it just mean the students who do well are good test takers?

Schleicher: The PISA test is not just a classical multiple choice test, it presents students with a lot of open-ended complex tasks that require a lot of thinking skills. You can’t learn tricks and do well on PISA. That’s simply not possible. What PISA looks at is capacity of students to solve complex problems.

Jessica: The top test scorers on PISA do well on questions that ask them to be creative, think outside of the box and connect different fields of knowledge.

Critics of PISA question how one test can give a true snapshot of a country’s education system. They caution against creating education policies based on a test that only measures math, science and reading. Some say schools should also be judged on other factors, like how they prepare students for life outside academics.

The U.S. is an average performer on PISA but it is here where innovation takes place. Facebook and Google were founded here, so why should we care how we did on this one test?

Schleicher: The reason why the U.S. economy has a big advantage is investment in education in the past. Because your economic success today is not about the children who are in school today, but about the people who went to school in the past, the U.S. really led the world but that is bound to change.

Jessica: And the changes don’t look good for the U.S. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimates that if the U.S. doesn’t improve the education system, Americans will be at a disadvantage since they will be competing for jobs against workers from other countries. The Center predicts U.S. workers will earn less money than today’s workers. That would shrink the U.S. economy and threaten its position as the largest economy in the world.

But if the U.S. were to improve and perform at the same level as the countries who are at the top of PISA, that could result in gains as high as $100 trillion for the U.S. economy over the lieftime of the generation born in 2010.

Which countries can the United States look to and learn from?

Schleicher: You cannot copy and paste education systems, can’t say I’m going to transplant that education system in the U.S. But you can look and say what makes Finland, Shanghai, Canada so successful?

Jessica: Over the next few days, we will examine the world’s best education systems. We will travel to Finland, considered to be home to the world’s best teachers, where it is harder to get into teaching school than medical school. We will head to our neighbor to the north and study Ontario, where 40% of the students are immigrants yet they are able to integrate and perform just as well as Canadian-born students. And we will examine Shanghai, China, which blew the world away with its number one performance on PISA in reading, science and math.


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