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Poor PISA Performance Requires Radical Curriculum Rethink

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While China's number one rankings in reading, science and math categories may ruffle America's competitiveness feathers, as witnessed in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), our feathers have been ruffled before, by a host of higher performing nations. America continues to be outcompeted on the PISA. In this latest assessment, the US moved little, scoring 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math.

Before America slips further, we must retool our education system so that each child is equipped with the training and education needed to reach their maximum potential. Good schools will give back to America through innovation, investment and intellect -- key components of any economic recovery process.

How do we regain our standing, then? First, we must do a better job outside the classroom of focusing on the overall needs of each child. Students growing up in poverty confront a wide array of barriers to learning such as healthcare, nutrition and safe learning environments, before they ever enter the classroom. PISA suggests that once these socioeconomic differences are factored out there is little difference between student performance at public and private schools. The US, then, with the highest income inequality and poverty rates among developed nations, must prioritize and offer equitable learning opportunities in order to realize equitable learning outcomes.

Meeting the total needs of the family through the use of community resources and concrete services is a start. A second, related lesson from PISA shows how income inequalities are exacerbated by aggressive competition between schools, a trend which PISA holds responsible for trapping the most disadvantaged in the poorest performing schools. We must keep this in mind as America clamors for a solution, clutching onto unscale-able charter school and voucher program successes, while failing to fix inequities.

The third lesson requires changes inside the classroom. China's high-performing schools result from a combination of increased inclusivity in the classroom (rather than focusing on a small elite), increased teacher pay and training, reduced rote learning and a focus on problem-solving activities.

All of these changes reflect a paradigm shift, not unlike the one I called for in authoring the National Commission on Equity and Excellence, to be launched by the US Department of Education in January 2011. Creating equity in our education system requires a radical curriculum rethink and a tailored, not rote, approach to meeting each child's needs.

Do this, and a mixture more of equity-minded measures, and we begin to fix our student performance stateside, while simultaneously ensuring our competitiveness globally. No need for us to fret in the wake of China's rankings, just a need to wake up to new realities and act accordingly, and fast. Our children's future, and the future competitiveness of this country, hangs in the balance.

- Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, and is a former teacher, school principal and school board member.