The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency

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The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the release of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

December 3, 2013

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, and thank you, Governor Wise, for your comments and for joining the release of the 2012 PISA results today.

In a number of important respects, the United States has made educational progress since the 2009 PISA.

Our high school graduation rate has risen to its highest rate in more than 30 years. Nationwide, 700,000 fewer students are attending high school dropout factories—high schools that fail to keep 60 percent of a ninth grade class three years later.

College enrollment is up, especially among Hispanic students. The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated that the number of Hispanic students enrolled in college jumped by more than 50 percent from 2008 to 2012, with an additional 1.1 million Hispanic students enrolled today.

On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or what's known as the nation's report card, reading and math scores edged up nationally to new highs for fourth and eighth graders. But several Race to the Top states—those that pressed ahead with some of the strongest, most sustained commitment to change—had big gains, like Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii.

Yet those signs of progress are only half the story.

The 2012 long-term NAEP showed that our 17-year olds are not improving. And as we see in today's PISA assessment, U.S. 15-year olds are still well behind their peers in top-performing nations.

The PISA is an important, comparative snapshot of U.S. performance because the assessment is taken by 15-year olds in high schools around the globe.

The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA is straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.

That brutal truth, that urgent reality, must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.

The problem is not that our 15-year olds are performing worse today than before. The problem instead is that they are not making progress. Yet students in many nations, as the Secretary General pointed out, are advancing, instead of standing still.

In a knowledge-based, global economy, where education is more important than ever before, both to individual success and collective prosperity, our students are basically losing ground. We're running in place, as other high-performing countries start to lap us.

Fifteen-year olds in the U.S. today are average in science and reading literacy, and below average in mathematics, compared to their counterparts in OECD countries.

The hard truth is that the U.S. is not among the top performing OECD nations in any subject tested by PISA—and that is the case even though U.S. students express more self-confidence in their academic skills than students in virtually all OECD nations.

Who has caught up to or surpassed us since 2009?

In math, students in countries such as Ireland, Poland, Latvia, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic now outperform their U.S. peers.

In science, Poland, Ireland, and the Czech Republic are now ahead of us. And students in Lithuania, Italy, and Spain are now on a par with U.S. students.

In reading, our strongest subject, our 15-year olds are now behind those from Estonia, Poland, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Out of the 62 education systems that administered the PISA in both 2009 and 2012, our ranking fell from 24th in 2009 to 29th in math in 2012, according to OECD's figures.

In science, we fell from 19th to 22nd. And in reading, our ranking dropped even more sharply—from 10th to 20th.

No one can feel satisfied to announce: "America is 29th in math!"

That reality is at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world. And that's why the mediocre performance of America's 15-year olds is a problem we cannot afford to accept and cannot afford to ignore.

Now, sometimes when I talk about the urgent need to strengthen the applied skills of our nation's teenagers, skeptics dismiss the significance of the PISA results.

They acknowledge the performance of America's 15-year olds is mediocre, but say that's only because our average scores are dragged down by the large number of poor, minority students in the U.S.

It's absolutely true that we have large and deeply troubling achievement gaps in America, and these achievement gaps are painfully evident on the PISA assessment.

We must close what I call the "opportunity gap." The only way to increase social mobility and strengthen the middle class is through high-quality education.

Yet it's also the case, as OECD studies and Secretary General Gurria just highlighted, that our diversity fails to explain why U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing nations.

While white 15-year olds in the U.S. do significantly better on average than students of color, our white students are still not among the world's top performers.

White students in the U.S. score well below the average of all students in math in diverse education systems like Shanghai, Singapore, and Korea.

America's white students also lag behind the average student from countries such as Estonia, Poland, Canada, Netherlands, and Vietnam in math. In Vietnam, 79 percent of students live in poverty, according to the OECD.

So the real educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods. It's about many kids in many neighborhoods. The PISA results underscore that educational shortcomings in the U.S. are not just the problems of other people's children.

Now, some skeptics note that our students have never fared well in international assessments. But they add that our lackluster performance is no big deal because American workers manage to be highly productive, and have been leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation.

What those skeptics fail to recognize is that education plays a much bigger role today in propelling economic growth than in the 1960s or the 1980s. In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, the importance of education has increased enormously. Education is the new currency, and this currency is recognized internationally.

When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, it was possible for my friends to drop out of high school and still land a decent-paying job in the stockyards or the steel mills that would allow you to support a family. That is no longer the case—and those days, and those jobs, are not coming back.

Today, there are basically no good jobs for high-school dropouts. To land a job that pays a living wage, most people will need at least some college.

In particular, applied math and science skills of the kind measured by PISA are essential to propelling innovation and maintaining international competitiveness.

Yet the percentage of high-performing students in Massachusetts—the U.S.'s highest-performing state—is dwarfed by the percentage of advanced students in top-performing systems, such as Shanghai, Singapore, and Korea.

In math, 19 percent of Massachusetts' students are high-performers. But in Shanghai, in China's top-performing system, 55 percent of students—almost triple Massachusetts' rate—are high-performers in math.

In science, the gap between Massachusetts and top-performing systems is not as wide but it's still large. In Massachusetts, 14 percent of 15-years olds are high-performers in science; in Shanghai, 27 percent are.

Now, there are two clear takeaways from the 2012 PISA results.

The first is that, to improve, the United State must continue to learn from—and adapt where appropriate—the practices of high-performing nations.

The U.S. still has a lot to learn about attracting the most talented teachers and school leaders to the most challenging classrooms and communities.

In a nation of 15,000 school districts that all have the freedom to innovate, I have said repeatedly that we have lacked courage, creativity, and courage in this area for far too long.

But I am pleased to say that the OECD's special report in 2010, benchmarking the U.S. against some of the world's best-performing and rapidly improving nations, found the U.S. was beginning to adopt the practices of other successful countries.

The OECD special report singled out the adoption of higher standards, through the state-led creation and adoption of the Common Core, and the Race to the Top program, as two critical steps in making the U.S. more like high-performing nations.

In fact, the OECD concluded that virtually every high-performing or rapidly improving system featured in their study—and I quote—"mirrors Race to the Top's effort to support the recruitment, development, rewarding, and retaining of effective teachers and principals." In education, here in the U.S. and across the globe, talent matters tremendously.

Since the OECD special report, the U.S. has begun to build another pillar of top- performing systems—the provision of high-quality early learning. President Obama's groundbreaking Preschool for All plan and recently-introduced bipartisan legislation is very much in keeping with the high-quality, early learning systems of many high-performing nations.

Making sure our babies get off to a good start and have a chance in life should be the ultimate bipartisan issue. The fact that there is so much unmet need across the country today is morally, educationally, and economically unacceptable.

Now, contrary to the myth one sometimes hears, the 2012 PISA also highlights that the vast majority of high-performing countries have both demanding and high-stakes assessments. Most high-performing countries have gateway exams for entrance into postsecondary education—and sometimes even for secondary education.

Whether it is Singapore's PSLE and GCE assessments, China's Gaokao, South Korea's CSAT, Germany's Abitur, or Poland's Matura college entrance exam, assessments linked to high standards propel good instruction and higher-order learning around the world.

As Linda Darling-Hammond has said, "The question for [U.S.] policymakers has shifted from 'Can we afford assessments of deeper learning?' to 'Can the United States afford not to have such high-quality assessments?'"

A second takeaway from the 2012 PISA is that the U.S. must redesign our high schools so they do a better job of developing college- and career-ready skills.

As many of you know, President Obama promoted the need for high school redesign in the State of the Union earlier this year. The President and I both want to see many more high schools develop real partnerships with colleges and employers.

And we want to expand STEM education that builds the skills employers are looking for now and in the future. Schools like P-TECH in New York offer one example of powerful new models that are already emerging.

Collectively, as a nation, our goal should be to see every student graduate with postsecondary credits or an industry-recognized certification. Today, a high school diploma isn't enough.

I am looking forward to collaborating, with the Department of Labor, on the administration's new $100 million Youth CareerConnect competition. That competition seeks to incentivize more high schools to provide students with the industry-relevant education and skills they need to succeed. Thankfully, we don't have to wait on Congress for this—we can just move, and be both smart and fast in pressing ahead.

In conclusions, the 2012 PISA results show that America is falling well short of our educational goals. But this is not the time to complain, to point fingers, or to deny reality.

Together, we have an amazing chance to learn from our colleagues from across the globe and take to scale what we know makes a difference in students' lives.

Our children and our nation deserve no less. The challenge is real, but so is the opportunity. We fight for both equity and excellence—that should motivate us all. So let's get to work!