Influential Groups Lay Out Road Map for Improving U.S. Education

A report urges states to adopt common standards so Americans can compete with other nations' students.

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By now, many people are familiar with America's poor academic performance on the international stage. Forty years ago, the United States had the highest high school completion rate in the world. Today, it ranks 18th out of 24 industrialized nations. In 1995, the rate of Americans going to college was among the highest in the world. Since then, 13 other countries boast higher college graduation rates than the United States. What can the United States learn from countries that seem to be doing a better job of preparing students for the 21st-century economy?

That's the question that three leading organizations representing governors and state educators say they want more states to ask themselves. A report from the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Achieve Inc. outlines several recommendations for rebuilding the U.S. education system. Among them is the idea that states should adopt common academic expectations that are linked to the best international teaching practices. Other ideas include improving textbooks, recruiting better teachers, and making sure schools are accountable for raising achievement through the use of international best practices.

"The global race is going to continue, and it's going to intensify in the coming years," said CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit. "We are unwilling to be on the losing end of this race."

The report,"Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education," raises a growing concern for the United States. American companies that once outsourced only low-skilled jobs to developing countries are now also exporting research jobs. If the United States wants to keep those jobs at home, the authors of the report say the government should focus more resources on education and import best practices from top-performing countries.

That's the approach that other countries have taken. Germany, for example, put together a team of experts to study what other high-performing countries were doing. The investment led Germany to adopt several reforms, including opening 10,000 all-day schools, that led to higher student achievement. Singapore, which now leads the world in math and science achievement, made a similar investment after trailing other countries in similar international comparisons in the mid-1980s.

In contrast, the report says, the United States has largely ignored the international benchmarking movement in education.

There's plenty of room for improvement, the authors say. The curriculum that the typical American eighth grader studies is two full years behind the curriculum that students in the top-performing countries are studying. In science, American eigth graders, for example, are memorizing parts of the eye while students in top-performing nations are learning about how the eye actually works.

Making textbooks and assessments more focused and better aligned would also help, the report suggests. Textbooks often present a "laundry list" of topics, which has led to the criticism that Americans are learning curricula that are "a mile wide and an inch deep." Mitchell Chester, education commissioner of Massachusetts, said the goal of international benchmarking is to help the United States know not only how it measures up to other countries but also what the high-achieving countries are doing that can be put to use in U.S. classrooms.. To that end, he says, federal lawmakers must allocate more funds to states that want to adopt these reforms. "We're not going to have all states march in lockstep, but there is a much greater sense of urgency than ever seen before" to adopt these reforms, says Mike Cohen, executive director of the school reform group Achieve Inc.

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