LEARNING FROM THE BEST: States Look to International Examples to Build World-Class Educational Systems

By Exstrom, Michelle | State Legislatures, September-October 2019 | Go to article overview

LEARNING FROM THE BEST: States Look to International Examples to Build World-Class Educational Systems


Exstrom, Michelle, State Legislatures


Maryland felt the urgency. With more than 60% of its graduating high school seniors unable to read at a 10th grade level or pass a basic algebra test, the danger of doing nothing was undeniable.

Despite the state's generous funding for education, student performance on international tests was mediocre, with a significant, persistent achievement gap between white students and those of color. Struggling students in poor schools had little additional support, and teachers were paid well below their peers in other professions.

So the legislature and governor convened a work group, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. Charged with creating a world-class education system, the commission's chairman, William Kirwan, a former University System of Maryland chancellor, described the group's work as "potentially the most important thing I have ever been involved in."

The bipartisan commission of 25 policymakers and stakeholders wanted to determine where its education system fell short and what needed to change. Commission members engaged state and local policymakers, teachers, and business and community leaders in the process and held public hearings and community meetings across the state, getting input from thousands of residents.

"Every state in the union should go through this process," says Maryland Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D), chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a commission member. "Until you get all of the policymakers and stakeholders together and truly study the gaps, you won't realize the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of your current system and how you can fix it."

The commission partnered with the National Center on Education and the Economy, which painstakingly compared the state's policies, practices and funding with those of the world's highest performing countries and states, including Finland, Ontario, Shanghai, Singapore, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey. Finally, the commission considered the best practices from around the world identified by NCSL's education study group in its report, "No Time to Lose."

A National Concern

Maryland is not alone. Most U.S. state education systems continue to fall dangerously behind their global counterparts in a number of international comparisons and on our own measures of progress.

U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 30th among teens from 70 countries on the 2015 PISA test, the most recent cross-national report on educational progress. Specifically, U.S. teens ranked 40th in mathematics, 24th in reading and 25th in science, trailing behind their counterparts in China, Estonia, Russia, Poland and Vietnam, among others. The PISA--short for Program for International Student Assessment--was created by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and tests 15-year-olds' abilities in those three subjects every three years.

In addition to reading, math and science, students were tested in collaborative problem solving in 2012 and 2015 and global competence in 2018. (It's interesting to note that U.S. students performed much better in collaborative problem solving than would be expected based on their other scores.) PISA results for 2018 will be available in December.

A separate assessment of U.S. fourth and eighth graders in 2017--the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka "The Nation's Report Card"--reflected similarly lackluster results: Fewer than 40% of fourth and eighth graders were proficient in math, and only 35% were proficient in reading.

National averages, of course, don't reflect significant differences among states and population groups. Achievement rates were even lower for students of color, for example.

The results are troubling, especially in the current, ever-evolving world economy in which our young workers may no longer be competitive for future jobs--jobs created right here in our own states. …

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