The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results released on Tuesday compare critical thinking abilities in math, science, and reading of 15 year olds in 69 countries, as it has been doing every three years since 2000.  It pretty clearly shows what effective countries are doing as far as education policy, as well as what doesn’t work.  Here’s what the smarter countries do:

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

Maybe the best piece of educational advice I’ve ever heard is a quip that can be applied equally to individuals, organizations, states, or countries.  The quickest way to improve is to pay attention to what you don’t do well, and focus on that.  So, generally grading the U.S. in these areas would reveal:

  • Making teaching more prestigious and selective – FAIL
  • More resources to neediest children – PASS in some states; FAIL in others
  • High quality preschools – PASS in some states; FAIL in others
  • Establish cultures of constant academic improvement – FAIL in many places.  (Note that the cultures of constant athletic improvement so common in secondary school sports show that we do know how to create a culture of constant improvement.)
  • Establish consistent, rigorous standards – Almost PASSED, but recently rejected by voters nationally, and in many states.

Increasingly, we know what works.  Maybe the continually increasing discrepancies between states and countries that are succeeding compared to those who don’t might start motivating some to start doing better.  First though, we have to pay attention.

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