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SHORT SIGHTED: New Alliance Report Calls on United States to be a More Active Participant in International Benchmarking

“The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), created by the world’s thirty most-developed countries, is a respected tool for policymakers at all levels to learn from the highest-performing nations.”

While other developed nations benefit by regularly comparing, or “benchmarking,” their educational performance and practices against each other, the United States largely ignores the world’s useful lessons in improving education, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report provides recommendations to the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Congress for immediately increasing participation in international comparisons that could boost student performance.

“U.S. Olympic teams don’t ignore the gains made by their competitors;” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, “nor can the United States ignore international education gains. In a world where our nation’s ability to continue winning the global economic competition is so closely tied to the educational preparation of our citizens, the United States cannot afford to bury its head in the sand and ignore the innovations in education that occur outside of its borders.”

Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement notes that overall U.S. student performance on international comparisons is poor and continues to decline, emphasizing the urgency for the United States to examine what it could learn from other countries. For example, in the 1960s, the United States produced the highest high school completion rates among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations, but by 2005, it slipped to twenty-first among the twenty-seven OECD countries with available data. And in college graduation rates, America has fallen from second to fifteenth since 1995.

The report finds similar failings in math and science. In 2003, American fifteen-year-olds ranked nineteenth out of twenty-nine OECD member nations in science. On the most recent test, in 2006, Americans dropped to twenty-first. A similar trend is evident in mathematics, where fifteen-year-olds in the United States ranked twenty-third in 2003 but slipped to twenty-fifth out of thirty OECD member nations by 2006.

“The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), created by the world’s thirty most-developed countries, is a respected tool for policymakers at all levels to learn from the highest-performing nations,” Wise continued. “But even individuals who disagree with the results on PISA tests should agree that the United States’ failure to take full advantage of PISA’s many lessons is a lost opportunity to learn from the highest-performing nations about how to improve student performance.”

As the report points out, the United States is the only OECD nation with a federal education system whose individual states still do not participate in PISA. In addition, it says that U.S. officials have “consistently declined invitations to participate in all but one of the OECD’s studies on educational policies and practices.” The report highlights several OECD studies in which the United States did not participate, including an international report designed to help policymakers formulate and implement school leadership policies to improve teaching and learning, and an international survey of teachers and school principals that includes questions on how good teaching is recognized and rewarded and strategies to provide teachers with effective professional development. The brief offers six recommendations for how the U.S. Department of Education (ED) can boost the nation’s involvement in international benchmarking and increase the visibility of American students’ performance. Specifically, it recommends that ED should

  • immediately undertake a comprehensive analysis that (a) reviews its current policies and participation in international comparisons, (b) lists the ongoing international educational studies that have numerous nations’ involvement, (c) evaluates the possible benefits of participating for each study, and (d) prepares recommendations for Secretary Arne Duncan about what changes should be made;
  • immediately create an advisory group that reviews current participation in international comparisons and submit recommendations to Secretary Duncan and the Institute for Education Sciences about future participation;
  • commit to full U.S. participation in all major international benchmarking opportunities, including the OECD’s future education studies;
  • consult with the OECD, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers on how best to provide opportunities for states to participate in future OECD studies;
  • work with the OECD to ensure that administrative errors do not compromise the release of future PISA results; and
  • consult with organizations in fields such as education and business to create an ongoing public awareness and interest in the importance of international education comparisons.

The brief also envisions a larger role for the U.S. Congress in the international benchmarking process and the performance of American students and offers two recommendations. First, it calls on Congress to appropriate the money necessary to participate fully in the PISA benchmarking and evaluation process. Second, it says that Congress should conduct periodic oversight hearings regarding the nation’s international education performance, efforts underway to learn from other nations’ successes, and actual application of international practices that could benefit education in the United States.

In a statement on the report’s release, Wise was careful to draw a distinction between the policies of the Bush Administration, which frequently cited budgetary reasons as justification for not participating in surveys and studies beyond the basic PISA, and the Obama Administration, which has expressed support for “college- and career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards,” according to a February 9 speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“The American public has been largely left in the dark about lackluster American performance on PISA and other international comparisons over the last few years,” Wise said. “Now that President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for higher educational standards that reflect international demands, there is a wonderful opportunity to shine a spotlight on this issue and bring it to the forefront of the educational debate.”

Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement is available at

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