Many years ago one of my University Professors, Stanley Bertram Chrimes (1907 – 1984), suggested that it was perfectly possible to get an excellent high school education in the US – it just took four years of University studies to do it. This was before the OECD’s international rankings of school system performance began to appear. Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed 15-year-old students in the U.S. performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. In contrast, Canada ranked 6th in reading, 8th in science and 10th in mathematics.
Why does the US do so poorly? There are several reasons, but these five strike me as critical:
- The education system in the US is a market based economy focused on costs and management not learning and outcomes. There is little consistency of approach across the US States and districts. The key driver appears to be costs and control.
- There is not a tight-loose system which enables professional teachers to excel. The clearest example of this relates to curriculum. Some districts have a very prescribed curriculum, in others teachers are free to create their own. This dimension of prescription to total freedom is unusual. In high performing systems there is a prescribed curriculum framework within which teachers are encouraged to create appropriate pedagogy. The US has yet to discover just how powerful this can be and, perhaps more tellingly, how it can implement this tight-loose system.
- The range of ability and challenge of poverty is a serious impairment to high performance. When we look at the PISA data closely, we see that the US has a much high level of variance between schools in performance. Equity is a challenge.
- Disparities between regions of the US and districts within States are substantial. For example, Catholic educators in many jurisdictions do not receive State support for their schools. Yet in Canada, Catholic students receive basically the same funding as all other students for their learning. The difference between wealthy states and poor states in terms of support for schooling is considerable.
- There is a stronger focus on “shiny objects” – new approaches, technology, fads and trends – in the US than in many other systems. Schools have been seduced by “the next thing” too many times.
If the US is to catch up and perform well in its school system it needs to focus on equity, a curriculum framework and enhancing the ability of teachers and schools to make decisions. Its about time.