03/15/2011 01:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waking Up to the Need for Education Reform

When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development international education study showed the US coming in 14th in reading, 17th in science and a disappointing 25th in math, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the results "a massive wake-up call." President Obama said in his State of the Union that we face a Sputnik challenge. But a variety of excuses offered since then make it all too tempting for Americans to push the collective snooze button.

Later this week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan working with the OECD will gather education ministers and union leaders to discuss the results and share best practices - and hopefully dispel any lingering sense that we don't need to act.

The OECD's Program for International Student Assessment is a widely respected survey comparing the academic performance of 15-year olds in reading, science and math. Nonetheless any number of pundits have offered middle-class parents the false comfort that it's just our diversity that brings down our results or that it doesn't matter because the tests only measure memorization - and the kids who get high scores come from Asian cultures that value rote learning but lack the creativity of our kids. The studies show otherwise.

It turns out that the US is not more diverse socioeconomically than many of the highest-performers. The US is above the OECD average on PISA's index of economic, social, and cultural status. The proportion of poor students, as measured by the same index, is lower in the US than it is on average across the surveyed countries. The US has a smaller percentage of students scoring at the highest levels than many of the high performing systems where there is a greater commitment to equity and even in the US some of the socially most disadvantaged schools reach the average performance of Finland. Sadly, in the US, social disadvantage becomes more of a determinant of learning outcomes than in high-performing nations where there is a greater understanding that all kids can (and need to) perform at the top levels and that in today's information age, countries can no longer rely on a small educated elite.

And, a consistent set of reform practices produces high-achieving kids no matter the ethnicity or socio-economic background of the students. Certainly, as the NY Times Nicholas Kristoff points out, many Asian families value education. But, Chinese schools have undergone radical reform to improve their schools and, as Kristoff himself points out, Finland -- hardly under the influence of Confucian culture -- also values education and scores at the top in science. Kids in these countries don't excel because they're good at rote memorization; PISA measures how well students apply knowledge and skills acquired in the classroom to problems they have never seen before -- exactly the kinds of skills needed for innovation and growth.

What the data really show is that we can no longer pretend that we're doing just fine but also that it's far from hopeless. The report on lessons for the US that the OECD prepared at Secretary Duncan's request boils down to four lessons -- the four A's:

Ambition. The world's top performing education systems have clear, ambitious goals, and universally high standards. They match these high expectations with strong support systems, ensuring that quality learning opportunities are available to all students.

All. Commitment to educating every child. PISA researchers found that the best education systems share a belief that "competencies can be learned, and therefore all children can achieve." Shanghai transfers its best teachers to its weakest schools to make sure that disadvantaged students receive excellent instruction.

Access to good teachers. Leading education systems provide mentoring and a high level of professional development, lay out clear career pathways, and are transparent in their decisions. They treat teachers like information-age workers: providing opportunities for teachers to try new ideas and learn from their colleagues. They are careful to win support from teachers for reforms.

Autonomy, accountability and incentives at the school level. High performing education systems give individual schools -- not just states or school districts -- discretion, which they safeguard through effective accountability systems

Today's Sputnik challenge isn't one that scientists can address in a laboratory; parents, teachers, principals and community leaders all need information so they can do their part. Fortunately Secretary Duncan and the OECD are marshalling facts and convening international education leaders in New York this week to help convince Americans of the necessity -- and benefits -- of change.