School & District Management

U.S. Must Learn From International Peers, Report Says

By David J. Hoff — March 24, 2009 3 min read
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To respond to the Obama administration’s call for common educational standards, federal officials need to take advantage of several resources that will show where the United States stands compared with other developed countries, a group advocating such standards says in a new report.

The United States has “tunnel vision” when it comes to comparing the performance of its students, its educational expectations of students, and policies affecting every level of education, the Alliance for Excellent Education writes in a policy brief released today.

While other countries “eagerly compare” themselves against their peers, the report says, the United States “ignores the opportunities to learn from its international peers in education.”

The Alliance for Excellent Education is working with the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and other groups to establish a method for making such comparisons, often called international benchmarking.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have given such efforts a boost since taking office by endorsing attempts to produce common, or national, standards that are in line with what other countries expect of their students.

In a March 10 speech on education, President Obama said that other countries are ahead of the United States in creating internationally competitive education standards. Mr. Duncan has said that he would allocate portions of a new $5 billion innovation fund to support efforts to increase the rigor of education standards.

Potential Flaws

Although policymakers are leading the undertaking, prominent researchers say the measures they hope to use as benchmarks are flawed.

In its policy brief, the Alliance for Excellent Education says the United States should increase its participation in testing and policy research conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based organization of developed countries, including the United States.

While the United States participates in OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, no U.S. states or cities provide big enough samples to measure their performance. In many OECD countries, provinces and cities participate in PISA to compare their results against other countries’, says the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based nonprofit advocating policies to improve the quality of high schools.

The OECD also offers other research studies to measure the quality of teachers and school leaders, higher education policies, and overviews of national education policies.

Lessons from such research could be “an important piece” of the benchmarking process, Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said in an interview.

Other countries actively use the research and the OECD’s consulting services to help improve and refine their policies, said Andreas Schleicher, the director of OECD’s division of education indicators and analysis.

“It’s at the center of the policy debates in most OECD countries,” Mr. Schleicher said.

While other countries have embraced the OECD’s work, one prominent researcher questions whether the group’s data are good enough for the United States to use in making policy decisions.

“Our standards of evidence across all kinds of methods are higher than the OECD’s,” said Mark S. Schneider, the vice president for special initiatives in the education, human development, and the workforce division at the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based company. Mr. Schneider was commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.

What’s more, the OECD’s researchers sometimes overstate the implications of their research, Mr. Schneider asserted.

“The line between policy and statistical analysis is too thin for my taste,” he said.

Last month, a report from the Brookings Institution maintained that questions on the PISA reflect ideological bias. (PISA Called Inappropriate for U.S. Benchmarking, March 4, 2009.)

But the new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education said PISA’s emphasis on measuring critical-thinking skills are “just the sort of skills that economists say an increasingly globalized and digitized economy will demand.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2009 edition of Education Week as U.S. Must Learn From International Peers, Report Says

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