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BENCHMARKING FOR SUCCESS: New Report Calls on State Leaders to Look to Highest-Performing Nations When Reforming Education Systems

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“In today’s world, high wages follow high skills, and long-term economic growth increasingly depends on educational excellence.”

If state leaders want to ensure that their citizens and economies remain competitive in the new global economy, they must look beyond America’s borders and benchmark their education systems with the best in the world. So says Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education, a new report by the International Benchmarking Advisory Group.1

“In today’s world, high wages follow high skills, and long-term economic growth increasingly depends on educational excellence,” the report reads. “Unfortunately, American education has not adequately responded to these challenges.”

As the report points out, U.S. fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-fifth in math and twenty-first in science achievement on recent international tests. Additionally, the United States, which once led the world in college and university graduation rates, now ranks fourteenth and has the second-highest college dropout rate among twenty-seven of the world’s most developed countries.

According to the report, the reason for the decline is not because students in the United States are performing worse, but because other countries have learned from America’s success and are catching up or pulling ahead. “As other countries seize the opportunity to improve their education systems so their citizens can benefit from new economic opportunities, the United States is rapidly losing its leading edge in the resource that matters most for economic success: human capital,” it reads.”

Fortunately, state leaders are already working to raise standards, improve teaching quality, and help low-performing students improve. In fact, thirty-four states that are members of the American Diploma Project Network are actively working toward the goal of making sure that every high school graduate is prepared for college or work. However, as the report points out, by only examining educational practices within U.S. borders, state leaders do not have access to insights and ideas that could make their existing educational policy and improvement process more effective.

“As this important report points out, international benchmarking can provide us with a wealth of information about innovative programs that might meet the needs of our own students,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, former governor of West Virginia, and member of the International Benchmarking Advisory Group. “We must widen our search for successful school strategies by taking a serious look at measures our global neighbors are undertaking to improve their student outcomes. … We owe it to our students to make sure we’ve done our homework so that they can successfully complete theirs.”

To this end, the report suggests five action steps that states can take to build globally competitive education systems.  First, states should upgrade their standards by adopting a “common core of internationally benchmarked standards” in math and language arts for grades K–12. Second, states should “leverage their collective influence to ensure that textbooks, digital media, curricula, and assessments are aligned to internationally benchmarked standards and draw on lessons from high-performing nations and states.” Third, they should “revise state policies for recruiting, preparing, developing, and supporting teachers and school leaders to reflect the human capital practices of top-performing nations and states around the world.” Fourth, states should “hold schools and systems accountable through monitoring, interventions, and support to ensure consistently high performance, drawing upon international best practices.” Lastly, states should “measure state-level education performance globally by examining student achievement and attainment in an international context to ensure that students are receiving the education they need to compete in the 21st century economy.”

“We are now living in a world without borders, and in order to maintain America’s competitive edge into the future we need students who are prepared to compete not only with their American peers, but with students from all across the globe for the jobs of tomorrow,” said Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (R), cochair of the International Benchmarking Advisory Group.

While states must take the lead role in international benchmarking, the report stresses the importance of a federal role as well. It recommends that the federal government offer new funding or allow existing funds to be used to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described. In addition, the federal government should increase its own investment or focus existing resources toward better research and development in this area to provide state leaders with more and better information about tools for benchmarking and international best practice in education.

And, as states progress toward building internationally competitive education systems, the report recommends that the federal government offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next steps easier, such as increased flexibility in the use of federal funds, greater flexibility in meeting the requirements of federal education laws, and additional funds to help states implement world-class practices. Over the long term, it suggests that the federal government change existing federal laws to align national education policies with the lessons learned from state benchmarking efforts and from federally funded research.

“If states in other countries can shape the response to the global education imperative, states in America must do so as well,” the report reads. “And state leaders have both the authority and an obligation to ensure that students attend globally competitive schools and school districts. America cannot maintain its place in the world—economically, socially, or culturally—unless all of its students gain the skills that allow them to compete on a global scale. The United States will only achieve true international competitiveness when state education policies and institutions are restructured to meet 21st century realities.”

The complete report is available at http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0812BENCHMARKING.PDF.

1) The International Benchmarking Advisory Group is composed of a panel of governors, state commissioners of education, representatives from the business community, researchers, former federal officials and current state and local officials. It was convened by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc.

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