NCSL Report: States Need World-class Education Systems to Compete Globally

by Julie Pelegrin

Based on the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranks 24th in reading scores, 36th in math scores, and 28th in science scores out of 65 participating countries. The PISA is an international comparative test that 15-year-old students take to demonstrate their knowledge in math, reading, and science. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) administers the PISA every four years to a sample of 15-year-old students in each participating country.

The OECD also administers the Survey of Adult Skills as part of its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). This instrument assesses persons from 16 to 65 years of age in numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving. The most recent survey involved 33 countries. Persons in the workforce from teens to early 30s – the millennials – in the United States scored in last place or tied for last place in numeracy and problem-solving. They scored third from last (ahead of only Spain and Italy) in reading.

Scoring in the middle to low end of the global pack is more than just a blow to our American egos. According to the report, with this level of performance in reading, math, and science, the United States “will struggle to compete economically against even developing nations, and our children will struggle to find jobs in the global economy.”

Based on the level of concern generated by a presentation on the 2012 PISA results, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) formed a study group to look at the educational systems in the top-performing countries. The study group’s goal was to identify the common design elements in world-class education systems. For the last two years, 28 veteran legislators and legislative staff, with the assistance of NCSL staff and other national and international education experts, have studied the education systems in ten of the top-performing provinces and countries: Alberta and Ontario, Canada; Hong Kong and Shanghai, China; Estonia; Finland; Japan; Poland; Singapore; and Taiwan.

Last week at the NCSL 2016 Legislative Summit, the study group released its report: “No Time to Lose – How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State.”

As is obvious in the title, the report has a clear sense of urgency. The executive summary starts with the bad news: Most state education systems are falling behind other countries’ educational achievement and failing to make progress on the United States’ National Assessment of Educational Progress. But it also gives the good news: There are common elements in the educational systems of high-performing countries that states can adapt and adopt for their own systems.

The report identifies these common elements:

  1. Children come to school ready to learn, and struggling students receive extra support so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.
  2. A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system in which every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.
  3. A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to students who prefer an applied education.
  4. Individual education system reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.

The report then sets out steps that a state can immediately take to further improve and develop its education system:

  • Build an inclusive team and set priorities
  • Study and learn from top-performing countries and states
  • Create a shared statewide vision for public education
  • Benchmark the state’s education policies against those of high-performing countries and states
  • Get started on changes to one piece of the system
  • Work through the “messiness” of the process of designing system-wide reform
  • Invest the time that it will take to implement system-wide reform

In looking at the high-performing countries, the study group recognized that most had developed a plan for public education and had implemented the plan over the course of 10 to 20 years. The group also noted that the high-performing countries did not adopt “silver bullet” strategies. Their plans for their public education systems were integrated, each element coordinated with and supporting the other elements.

The report addresses some of the objections that are typically raised in comparing the education systems in the United States with those of other countries. One of the main criticisms is the assertion that the United States is more diverse than other countries and therefore faces challenges that other countries do not. But both Europe and Asia have experienced increases in immigration in the past several decades, and some of these countries have overcome the educational challenges that stem from a student population with multiple ethnicities, languages, and religions. And the proportion of Canadian students who were born outside Canada is actually greater than the proportion of U.S. students born outside the U.S.

The report recognizes that each state is responsible for the quality of its educational system. And while each system may include the elements identified in the report, each state must modify and adapt each element to fit the uniqueness of the state’s educational system and needs.

Finally, the report concludes:

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort, and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If [the high-performing countries] can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.