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A Test for Our Nation

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It's fall, and students are back in school, albeit in larger classes with fewer supports as school budgets are slashed. Much of their energy will be focused on preparing for the legions of tests purporting to drive accountability.

Here's one question they won't be asked on any test: In what category does the United States lead the world?

A) math and science achievement

B) high school graduation rates

C) participation in higher education

D) college and career readiness

E) support for teacher quality

The answer is "F" -- none of the above.

The U.S. has fallen further behind in each category. High school graduation rates have slipped to the bottom half of the industrialized world. College participation has fallen from first to 16th. As demand grows for scientists and engineers, the U.S. ranks 35th out of 40 nations in math and 29th in science, according to the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The timing could not be worse. "Education is the currency of the information age," President Obama has noted. "The best jobs will go to the best educated, whether they live in the United States or India or China." We're struggling just to keep up with Latvia and Azerbaijan.

What went wrong? Forty years ago, America educated more citizens to higher levels than any other nation. In the last two decades, a blizzard of initiatives has been launched to improve schools, including, most recently, billions of dollars in "Race to the Top" incentives for states with innovative reforms. President Obama has set a new goal of leading the world in college graduation by 2020.

Goal-setting, however, is not magic. In 1989, President Bush and the nation's governors vowed to graduate all students and become first in the world in math and science by 2000. Today, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation whose next generation is on pace to be more poorly educated than the last -- a shocking blow to the American Dream.

Changing our schools requires changing our strategy. Americans are great innovators, and educators have created thousands of exciting and successful schools and programs. But bottom-up innovation, while necessary, is not sufficient. We must end our love affair with passing fads and small-scale projects that live at the margins of the system, often in hostile policy environments. These cannot be spread to other schools that lack the knowledge, resources, and capacity to adopt them.

Instead, like high-achieving nations, we must invest in a comprehensive teaching and learning system that can routinely produce excellent schools.

It starts with equitable funding. A yawning "opportunity gap" has driven the achievement gap ever-wider. Most states have a 3-to-1 ratio between high- and low-spending schools. African-American and Latino students increasingly attend severely segregated, under-resourced schools with larger class sizes, a lower-quality curriculum, and a revolving door of inexperienced, untrained teachers. "The kids with greatest needs don't remotely get their fair share of the highest-quality teachers," said New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

By contrast, high-achieving nations fund schools centrally and equally. Dramatic inequalities are not tolerated. Educators are valued. Finland and Singapore, for example, competitively select teachers from a pool of college graduates and provide several years of top-quality preparation, free of charge. Once in the classroom, they are carefully mentored and well-supported, with salaries comparable to those of engineers.

Meanwhile, aspiring teachers in the U.S. often go into debt to earn about 25 percent less than other college graduates. Those in the poorest schools earn even less, and must dip into their own pockets to buy basic supplies. Is it any surprise these schools suffer severe teacher shortages?

In high-performing nations like Singapore, Canada, and Australia, curriculum is integrated with assessments. Teachers help develop and score the exams, spurring continuous improvement in instruction. The exams focus on higher-order skills in high demand by universities and employers -- essay writing, scientific investigation, research, and complex problem-solving. The U.S. is still wedded to factory-model multiple-choice tests, which are poor measures of students' capabilities.

We have a chance for real reform. Recently, governors and state education leaders drafted common college- and career-ready academic standards that are "fewer, higher, and deeper" than our current mile-wide, inch-deep standards. States such as Connecticut, Kentucky, Vermont, and Wyoming, to name a few, have already designed 21st century assessments featuring research, writing, and complex problem-solving.

This is just a start. We must build comprehensive teaching and learning systems in every state. We must equalize resources for students, support thoughtful assessments, help schools learn from success, and create an infrastructure to recruit, train, and retain the best teachers.

Americans cannot be satisfied with islands of innovation amid seas of mediocrity. Our mission must go well beyond leaving no child behind. A high-quality system that makes innovation permanent will push all children to worldly heights.

Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education at Stanford University where she founded and oversees the School Redesign Network. The national program works to transform schools to teach 21st century skills and support student success through innovations in district and school redesign, as well as in curriculum, teaching and assessment. Darling-Hammond is a 2009 recipient of the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.

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