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Losing Our Edge: Are American Students Unprepared For The Global Economy?


Over two hundred educators, advocates, and other key stakeholders gathered December 4 to discuss the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The event—cohosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Asia Society, Business Roundtable, Council of Chief State School Officers, ED in ‘08, and the National Governors Association—featured a dynamic presentation by Andreas Schleicher, PISA’s director and head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) Directorate for Education; reactions from each of the hosting organizations; and an engaging question-and-answer session with the audience.

PISA, administered by the OECD, is one of the few mechanisms for regularly and directly comparing the quality of educational outcomes in fifty-seven countries that make up almost 90 percent of the world’s economy. The test measures the capacity of fifteen-year-old students in OECD countries to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in order to analyze, reason, and communicate effectively.

Schleicher gave a dynamic presentation, capturing the highlights of hundreds of pages of results in a few PowerPoint slides.

He initially described the realities of an increasingly global economy, within which American students will enter a workforce that competes internationally and demands far different skills than those traditionally taught and tested. Next, Schleicher demonstrated the changing nature of the global talent pool, noting that as the percent of Americans graduating from high school and obtaining postsecondary degrees has stagnated, other nations have rapidly increased their percentages of educated individuals.

He then presented American students’ performance on the 2006 PISA. In science, the United States ranks twenty-first out of the thirty OECD countries (down from nineteenth in 2003, and fourteenth in 2000). The United States has an average number of top performers, but a large proportion of poor performers. In mathematics, U.S. scores remained basically unchanged from 2003, though its ranking dropped to twenty-fifth (from twenty-third in 2003, and eighteenth in 2000), indicating that other nations improved their performance. Further, the United States had a below-average number of top performers, combined with a large proportion of poor performers.

(Because U.S. performance on the reading component of the assessment were invalidated due to an error with the printing of the test booklets, no results were available for this important measure of students’ performance. The Alliance for Excellent Education’s president, Bob Wise, has called on the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences to re-administer the reading section of the exam for U.S. students.)

Next, Schleicher addressed the issue of equity in the American education system. In the United States, socioeconomic disparities have a strong impact on student performance, whereas some countries (e.g., Finland, Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong) have been able to moderate these effects with high-quality schools regardless of disparities within communities. The United States also has a high percentage of variation in performance between schools, much of which can be attributed to a community’s socioeconomic status.

Schleicher also debunked theories claiming that poor U.S. performance is due largely to the high percentages of immigrant students within the educational system. True, immigrant students perform poorly, with a typical immigrant student in the United States lagging as much as two years behind his or her peers and even second-generation students falling behind. However, educating immigrant students is not a challenge unique to the United States. In fact, as Schleicher pointed out, a number of OECD countries have more than 20 percent of their students originating from immigrant backgrounds; and while native-born students outperform immigrant students in most countries, in some countries there is no difference between immigrant and non-immigrant students. In fact, seven countries with higher percentages of immigrants than the United States (Hong Kong-China, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Macao-China) perform, on average, higher than the United States.

Finally, Schleicher highlighted some of the OECD’s findings regarding education systems in high-performing nations, noting that they were characterized as having high ambitions and clear, common expectations; strong accountability accompanied by strong support; devolved responsibility where the school is the center of decisionmaking; personalized learning; access to best practices and quality professional development; and integrated educational opportunities.

Comments from respondents representing the hosting organizations had several common themes. For one, they said that the major technological, economic, and demographic changes our society faces have ignited an awareness of the need to increase America’s competitiveness, agreeing that if America is to improve its capacity to compete in the global knowledge economy, it must equip its education system with the ability to meet the fast-growing demand for high-level skills. The lessons learned from the PISA results and the OECD analysis of education systems across the globe can, and should, be used to inform U.S. education policy so that our students graduate from high school ready to compete, thrive, and lead in the global economy of the twenty-first century.


Supplemental Materials

Joint StatementNational Groups Co-Host Briefing On 2006 PISA Results, Issue Joint Statement

audioAudio* and videoVideo (Windows Media) of Entire Event

I. Welcome and Introduction

Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent EducationBob WisePresident, Alliance for Excellent Education videoVideo (Windows Media)

II. Presentation

Andreas Schleicher, Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division, OECD Directorate for EducationAndreas SchleicherHead of the Indicators and Analysis Division, OECD Directorate for Education videoVideo (Windows Media)

videoVideo with PowerPoint Presentation
View Andreas Schleicher video and PowerPoint presentation simultaneously! You control advancing and reviewing PowerPoint presentation while viewing video by clicking “Next” or “Previous” underneath the PowerPoint that opens in Windows Media Player. (Your browser may ask you to give permission to open webpage within video: Click “Yes” in order to view video and presentation).

Andreas Schleicher's PowerPoint PresentationAndreas Schleicher’s PowerPoint Presentation

III. Responses from Panel videoVideo (Windows Media)

Vivien Stewart, Asia SocietyVivien StewartVice President for Education, Asia Society

Roy Romer, ED in’08Roy RomerChairman, Strong American Schools Campaign, ED in’08

Raymond C. Scheppach, National Governors AssociationRaymond C. ScheppachExecutive Director, National Governors Association

Susan Traiman, Business RoundtableSusan Traiman, Director of Public Policy, Business Roundtable

Gene Wilhoit, Council of Chief State School OfficersGene WilhoitExective Director, Council of Chief State School Officers

Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent EducationBob WisePresident, Alliance for Excellent Education

IV. Question & Answer videoVideo (Windows Media)

Question & Answer Session

V. Closing

Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent EducationBob WisePresident, Alliance for Excellent Education videoVideo (Windows Media)

Categories: International Comparisons

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