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Sean Slade Headshot

Moving Forward or Chasing Our Own Tail?

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A few months back I wrote a piece for The Washington Post education section titled "What Other Countries Are Really Doing in Education." In the first line I asked, "Are we moving forward or chasing our own tail?"

I repeat it here because it seems that the more we say we are moving forward, progressing and reforming our education systems, the more we actually seem to be chasing our own tails and repeating what we have been doing.

Ever since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) put out its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, the conversation among U.S. education pundits has centered on our "Sputnik moment" and the fact that the United States now ranks 14th out of 34 for reading, 17th for science, and a below-average 25th for mathematics. Subsequently, the conversation has knee-jerked to how we can raise these scores and how we must further narrow the focus on reading, math, and -- if we have the funding -- science. Why? So that we can improve our ranking compared to other countries and return to the top of the table.

The discussion in the United States has been very teacher-centric, academics-centric, and testing-centric. It has revolved around providing incentives for effective teachers; expanding the ability to fire ineffective teachers; the value -- or lack of -- teaching experience, credentials, and degrees; increasing class time and lengthening the school day; and expanding the role of standardized testing.

In contrast since the PISA results came out in November, the Directorate for Education at OECD has put out four publications that, when compared to the debate in the United States, are strikingly different.
The conversation at the OECD has been systems-centric, learning community-centric, and foundational.
PISA in Focus N°2: Improving Performance: Leading from the Bottom, March7, 2011, compares the overarching systems in place across 13 countries whose performance on PISA improved between 2000 and 2009.
Quality Time for Students: Learning In and Out of School , February 11, 2011, looks at how students use and communities support learning time both in and out of school.
PISA Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, February 10, 2011, takes a close look at the resilient student and key student-teacher relationships present among those who excel on PISA despite their disadvantaged background.
Preschool Participation Boosts Teenagers' Performance in OECD/PISA , February 2, 2011, focuses on the role of preschool in establishing the learning process.

We appear to be reactive in the education debate as opposed to proactive. We appear to be more concerned about where we rank and how we score academically than we are about what the results may tell us about what we value and how we structure our education systems. In short, we appear to be chasing our own tail -- reacting to what's waved in front of us, going in circles and losing sight of the bigger picture.

Last month, alongside the aforementioned crop of publications, the OECD Directorate of Education began another initiative. The initiative Education and Social Progress is actually an adjunct to a previous project titled the Social Outcomes of Learning. These initiatives look to better understand how society benefits from education and varying education systems. How does an education system affect health, well-being, longevity, productivity, and social engagement? How do education systems promote society and develop its future citizens?

Isn't this where the U.S. education debate should be? Shouldn't we be more geared toward discovering what we want our education system to do in the broadest sense than myopically focused on where we rank? And isn't it interesting that the countries looking at how education supports and grows society are also the ones we are trailing in the three discreet measures of PISA?

Maybe the PISA results should be seen as are just what they purport to be --an indication of how countries measure up to one another on three indicators. They are a snapshot, an impression of how countries compare, but they don't seek to be a divining rod for what an education system should be.

Even the PISA 2009 Results: Executive Summary states on the first page, "PISA focuses on young people's ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in the goals and objectives of curricula themselves, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school and not merely with whether they have mastered specific curricular content."