The U.S. education system recently received a report card from the OECD, a think tank for developed countries. America’s grades weren’t pretty.
Twenty-nine countries out-performed the United States in math. Nineteen did better in reading. America fared even worse than the last time the survey was conducted in 2009.
Clearly, America needs higher educational standards. But instead of working with state education leaders to implement such standards, some state legislators are waging a turf war over who decides what kids should learn.
This pointless infighting must end. Rather than politicize academic standards, lawmakers should collaborate with state education leaders to raise them—with the ultimate goal of improving student achievement.
Our country’s stagnating performance has serious economic consequences. In 2009, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that closing the international educational achievement gap would increase U.S. GDP by $2.3 trillion.
McKinsey concluded that America’s underperformance represents “the equivalent of a permanent, deep recession.”
Fortunately, several states are working to close the achievement gap.
Massachusetts has implemented high academic standards over the past decade. As a result, the Bay State’s performance on the NAEP, a federal measure of student achievement, jumped 35 points. Among low-income kids, the gains were even bigger—more than 47 points.
In other words, while all students are improving, the kids who face the steepest challenges are improving faster.
How did Massachusetts do it? First, they set high college- and career-ready standards (benchmarks for what students should know in reading and math ) for all students. Then they invested in teacher preparation and professional training. Finally, they stayed the course through changes in political administrations. Their bipartisan effort is now paying off.
That’s what really works. In most states, boards of education (comprised of volunteers from the business, medical, educational, and even farming communities) articulate academic standards as well as a long-term vision for public education. Because they’re insulated from political pressure, state boards are able to focus solely on improving education for all students.
Massachusetts isn’t the only state where lawmakers and education boards are cooperating to improve children’s educational opportunities.
Kentucky has led the movement to raise academic standards. Many state officials worried that tougher standards would lead to lower student test scores and spark a backlash.
But the state board of education and legislators pre-emptively cautioned communities across the state not to panic if test scores declined, as they did initially.
Holding students to higher standards generated positive returns. College and career readiness among Kentucky’s high school graduates increased almost 25% after the math and reading standards were implemented.
In Maryland, officials paired rigorous evaluation of teachers with individually tailored professional development to help them improve.
More effective teachers have yielded better-performing students. On the NAEP, Maryland posted the second-biggest gains for all students between 2003 and 2011. The state’s low-income students made the most improvement in the nation.
Yet too many lawmakers are ignoring results like these. In the last 18 months, legislators in more than 20 states introduced 50 bills that would circumvent the authority of state boards of education on matters such as academic standards, thereby adding more bureaucracy to the policymaking process.
The American educational system has been mediocre for too long. Fighting over who should have the power to fix it only distracts from that reality.
Lawmakers and independent state boards of education must work together to set high standards for our children and empower them to succeed.
(Former state legislator Kristen Amundson is now the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education [NASBE]).