The latest international report on student knowledge and success worldwide once again paints U.S. pupils in a bad light. This is not the first time American students have lagged behind their peers on the OECD PISA global education survey that tests and compares student outcomes in areas like math, science and reading. The results are really just more of the same.
While I take issue with particular parts of the test (leader China reportedly only tested students in elite schools in Shanghai), it is a wake-up call nonetheless. When it comes to American K-12 student achievement, it is not enough to be a big fish in a little pond. To really make a splash and gain international footing, a few things need to change in U.S. K-12 education. Here are just a few:
Teacher support. This starts from administration in individual schools and extends into the community at large. Parents must also respect the role of teachers in order for kids to follow suit. Unfortunately many times teachers are pitted as servants, and not put on the pedestal they deserve. Perhaps I'm biased but what is more important than imparting knowledge to our next generation? Today's best teachers are not simply reciting facts and expecting their students to regurgitate them; the teachers in contemporary classrooms are "showing their work" so to speak by imparting the life skills necessary for students to find answers on their own and be successful citizens in other ways.
Teachers need backup from the other people in their students' lives and from their own colleagues and superiors. Traditionally high-performing PISA countries like Sweden, Australia and Japan all have one thing in common - high levels of community support for teachers and involvement from teachers in the course of instruction and curriculum. When new initiatives are handed down in the U.S., like the Common Core standards, teachers should have access to resources to help them reach goals. Teachers need more input in decisions, more access to continuing education resources and more faith from the administrators and families impacted by their classrooms.
STEM emphasis. There seems to be a general societal consensus that science, technology, engineering and math subjects are somehow boring, or uncool. A lot of attention has been placed lately on young women and finding ways to encourage them in male-dominated STEM fields, but I'd argue that young men need the same opportunities. Overall, more American students need to take an interest in STEM topics if we want to be able to compete on a global scale. The rapidly changing field of technology makes this part of U.S. K-12 education even more pressing. As the digital age continues to modify life as we know it, the students in today's classrooms must have the tools to lead the country in discoveries, inventions and communication technology the coming decades.
Equal opportunities. In country that claims to be based on equality for all, there are still too many achievement gaps in our classrooms. While it should be a non-issue, the color of a student's skin does seem to impact his or her academic achievement. It is not a direct effect, of course, but still something that needs even more focus to overcome. The best work on closing the achievement gap is in individual schools and I think that makes the most sense. No blanket national program will be able to answer all of the intricacies of why an achievement gap exists in a particular place or school. From a federal standpoint, however, schools should be encouraged to develop programs for eliminating achievement gaps and reaching individual students where it is most effective - their own classrooms.
Why do you think American students lag the rest of the world? What would you add to my list?
Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Pearson, please click on the following link.