07/16/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

An Education System That Works

Co-authored by Sean McKenna

Ahead of Greece, behind Canada -- and in a quandary. That sums up the United States' position in public education on the world stage, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

PISA has measured achievement in reading, mathematics and science literacy since 2003. The test is given every three years to 15-year-olds in the United States and 33 other industrialized countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The most recent results in mathematics raise questions and concerns for the United States.

* The U.S. was 27th among 34 OECD countries in mathematics in 2012. There has been no significant change in this ranking over time.

* More than 1 in 4 U.S. students in 4 do not reach the PISA baseline for mathematics proficiency - a higher-than-OECD average proportion and one that hasn't changed since 2003. The United States also has a below-average share of top performers.

* U.S. students have particular difficulty applying mathematic concepts in real-world situations. Recent publications, such as Amanda Ripley's, "The Smartest Kids in the World," suggest a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards for mathematics would also lead to big performance gains on the PISA.

* Spending alone might not solve the problem. Students in the Slovak Republic, which spends approximately $5,300 per student, perform similarly to their peers in the United States, which spends in the aggregate more than $15,000 per student.

* Compared with peers in Massachusetts, one of the better U.S. performers, students in top-ranked Shanghai, China receive the equivalent of more than two additional years of formal schooling in mathematics.

Working in partnership, the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education and the Groton (CT) Public Schools would like to change this narrative. Much work obviously remains before the United States once again leads the world in education. However, we want to expand the conversation beyond what doesn't work to what does.

Too much time is spent on what teachers "don't do" and what students "don't learn." We need to balance the equation with what teachers "can do" and how students "learn best," using a multi-pronged approach that focuses on student strengths instead of perceived weaknesses.

Learning and thinking happen in a cultural setting and always rely on cultural resources, as Jerome Bruner reminds us in his seminal book "The Culture of Education." Within that as a guide, Groton is using proven science and while creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect to nurture student confidence and achievement.

The importance of creating school and classroom climates based on caring, trusting relationships cannot be overstated in any school district. More than that, Groton is using neuroscience and cognitive research to help young brains as they continue to develop, engaging students through higher-order critical and creative thinking skills that build on students' natural intelligence and encourage them to put in the effort to bridge those gaps between the known and unknown.

In turn, these and other interventions give teachers the satisfaction that comes from a keen focus on instruction -- the heart of which will always be learning and teaching.

These on-the-ground experiences frequently manifest in small victories: fewer "bored" students; fewer missed school days because of teacher burnout and student absences; upward trending in academic achievement. These successes may not end up in the newspaper or television newscasts, but they are what matter most.

Learning comes alive when a teacher discovers instructional strategies that work and help all learners progress. Many interventions can help. For example, scaffolding provides intensive individual support until a student learns the concepts. Teachers can coach rather than lecture, and students and student voices are more closely involved in instructional planning. Finally, dialogical engagement and self-directed study may be foreign to some teachers, but these strategies work and help students learn. In Groton, students, educators and parents are beginning to recognize that these interventions foster lifelong learning and successful social engagement.

By focusing more attention on what is working in the classroom, America may just begin to shift the public education narrative toward what's working for teaching and learning -- and move the United States to the head of the international class.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.

Sean McKenna is an assistant principal at Fitch High School in Groton, Connecticut.