Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at OECD's Release of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 Results

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Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at OECD's Release of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 Results

December 7, 2010

Since the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first implemented PISA in 2000, it has mushroomed to 60 countries and five non-national entities, such as Shanghai.

It is fast becoming the measuring rod by which countries track trends in national performance and assess college and career-readiness of students as they near the end of their compulsory education and prepare to participate in the global economy.

Here in the United States, we have looked forwardly eagerly to the 2009 PISA results. But the findings, I'm sorry to report, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

The United States has a long way to go before it lives up to the American dream and the promise of education as the great equalizer.

Every three years, PISA assesses the reading, mathematics, and scientific literacy of 15-year old students. It provides crucial information about how well our students are prepared to do the sorts of reading, mathematics, and science that will be demanded of them in postsecondary education or the job market, and as young adults in modern society.

Unfortunately, the 2009 PISA results show that American students are poorly prepared to compete in today's knowledge economy.

President Obama has repeatedly warned that the nation that "out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow." And the PISA results, to be brutally honest, show that a host of developed nations are out-educating us.

Finland, Korea, and Canada are consistent high-performers. And the jewel of China's education system, Shanghai, debuted this year as the highest scoring participant globally.

With the exception of some improvement in science from 2006 to 2009, U.S. performance on the PISA has been largely stagnant. The U.S. is not among the top performing OECD nations in any subject tested by PISA--though U.S. students express more self-confidence in their academic skills than students in virtually all OECD nations. This stunning finding may be explained because students here are being commended for work that would not be acceptable in high-performing education systems.

The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades.

Americans need to wake up to this educational reality--instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership.

The basic findings of the 2009 PISA for the United States are as follows. In reading literacy, 15-year old American students were average performers among 34 OECD nations. The U.S. effectively showed no change in reading skills since 2000. Overall, the OECD's rankings have U.S. students in 14th place in reading literacy among OECD nations.

In mathematics, U.S. 15-year olds are below-average performers among OECD nations.

After a dip in our 2006 math scores, U.S. students returned to the same level of performance in 2009 as six years earlier, in 2003. Still, we rank a lowly 25th in math.

The most encouraging finding from PISA is that our average science score is up. In 2006, American 15-year olds had below-average skills in scientific literacy, compared to their OECD peers. Today, U.S. students have improved enough to become average performers in science among OECD nations, earning 17th place in the OECD rankings.

Still, that's not much to celebrate. Being average in science is a mantle of mediocrity--and especially in a knowledge economy where scientific literacy is so central to sustaining innovation and international competitiveness.

I would caution you against making too much of small gradations in rankings. They are not meaningful. But the gap between top-performing countries and the U.S. is meaningful—and large. To take one example, OECD analysis suggests that 15-year olds in Korea and Finland are, on average, one to two years ahead of their American peers in math and science.

As disturbing as these national trends are for America, enormous achievement gaps among black and Hispanic students portend even more trouble for the U.S. in the years ahead. Last year, McKinsey & Company released an analysis which concluded that America's failure to close achievement gaps had imposed—and here I quote—"the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

So, the big picture from PISA is one of educational stagnation, at a time of fast-rising demand for highly-educated workers. The mediocre performance of America's students is a problem we cannot afford to accept and cannot afford to ignore.

In a highly-competitive knowledge-based economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America's students are effectively losing ground. And that is one reason I asked the OECD earlier this year to prepare a study of what the U.S. could learn from the education systems of high-performing nations.

That study, as the Secretary General discussed, is rich with lessons for the United States. But a recurring theme that stands out is that much of the conventional wisdom about the barriers to dramatically accelerating achievement in the U.S. is mistaken.

The chief reason that U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing countries is not their diversity, or the fact that a significant number of public school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem, OECD concludes, is that "socioeconomic disadvantage leads more directly to poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries." Disadvantaged Canadians are much less at risk of poor educational performance than their counterparts here.

Our schools, in other words, are not doing nearly as much as they could to close achievement gaps. As schoolchildren age in America, they "make less progress each year than children in the best-performing countries," according to the OECD.

By contrast, high-performing countries not only dramatically boost student achievement, they do so while closing achievement gaps at the same time. In Finland, there are consistent, strong, and predictable educational outcomes for children regardless of where they go to school.

The OECD study also finds that more resources are not the simple answer for America's educational shortcomings. The U.S. spends more per student than any OECD nation except Luxembourg. Students in Estonia and Poland perform at roughly the same level as those in the U.S., even though Estonia and Poland spend less than half as much per student. Higher performing countries tend to invest differently from us. For example, many prioritize higher teacher salaries over small class sizes. More broadly, they professionalize the teaching profession.

The real problem with K-12 spending in the U.S. is our low educational productivity. Unlike high-performing systems, we achieve less per dollar. And we do less to target spending on the most challenged students and schools. All OECD nations--except the U.S., Israel, and Turkey--devote as much funding or more to schools facing the biggest socioeconomic challenges as they do to schools with more privileged students.

Most countries invest money where the challenges are greatest, and they put in place incentives and support systems that attract the most talented teachers to the most difficult classrooms. Here in the U.S., at best, we are in our infancy in this critically important work.

Let me just say in closing that I was struck by the convergence between the practices of high-performing countries and many of the reforms that state and local leaders have pursued in the last two years in adopting the Common Core standards, and in competing for the Race to the Top program, School Turnaround grants, and the Teacher Incentive Fund.

Almost all high-performing education systems set rigorous, shared academic standards for student success.

Thanks to the courage and commitment of our nation's governors, state school chiefs, state school boards, and state lawmakers, 40 states and the District of Columbia this year have adopted the Common Core standards in math and English. That is a game-changer. That will largely put an end to the insidious practice of dummying down academic standards to make politicians look good.

The OECD reported that virtually every high-performing country they studied (and I quote) "mirrors Race to the Top's effort to support the recruitment, development, rewarding, and retaining of effective teachers and principals."

So, yes, our policies are moving us in the right direction. But the practices of high-performing countries show clearly that America in particular has to do much more to elevate the teaching profession, from the recruitment and training of teachers to their evaluation and professional development.

The United States has a lot to learn from South Korea, Singapore, and Finland about building the teaching profession and recruiting teachers from the ranks of top students. In high-performing countries, teachers are typically recruited from the top third of students; in Finland, it's the top ten percent of students who vie to become teachers.

And before they ever enter the classroom, they receive rigorous clinical training. In the U.S., clinical training is often haphazard and of uneven quality.

High-performing countries have moved away from the century-old factory model of education still used in much of America. In countries that are out-educating us, teachers are often thought of as nation builders. Unlike in the U.S., meaningful evaluations, compensation for highly-effective teachers, and high-quality professional development are all embedded in the job.

In the United States, our system far too often fails to provide meaningful evaluation and incentives for the most effective teachers to teach the most challenged students. Too often, we treat teachers as if they were interchangeable widgets in a school assembly-line.

Americans take real pride in the idea that our nation is exceptional. And is true that our education has unique strengths—we have rich resources, an unmatched tradition of innovation, and a higher education system that is still the finest in the world.

Never before have we had so many pockets of excellence in the K-12 system that can point the way for excellence in all our schools. The 2009 PISA shows that 20 percent of American students enrolled in high-poverty schools reach the average performance of students in Finland, one of the world's most high-achieving nations. This is encouraging.

But we must raise our sights. Our goal must be to be great again and to lead the world in achievement and college attainment, success must become the norm. It is time to acknowledge that much of our preK-12 system is not exceptional.

The highest-performing and most rapidly-improving countries have a great deal to learn from one another.

To continue and deepen that conversation, we--together with OECD and other partners--will convene an International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York in March to bring together Ministers of Education and national teachers-union leaders from these countries.

I have every confidence that America can capitalize on our strengths, adapt where we need to, and learn from others. We've done so before.

The U.S. currently has many of the world's top research universities. But a century ago we adopted the concept of the research university from Germany.

Vocational and technical education in the U.S. has its roots in Scotland's mechanical institutes, which were then on the cutting edge of technology training. Our leading prep schools are modeled after England's.

Today, America has to study and learn from other nations once again. The need is urgent, the opportunity unique. Children only get one chance at an education.

Martin Luther King famously said that he couldn't wait for justice to prevail. And as a nation, we can no longer wait to improve schools that deny children of the opportunity for a world-class education.

Our children, and our country, need and deserve the best.