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'Above Average' Not Good Enough in Global Economy

"Unacceptable," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

He's referring to new international research that shows American schools are "above average."

Some see the new rankings as promising news following the squarely "average" OECD rankings the year before. But Secretary Duncan cautions that it's not good enough "if our schools are to live up to the American promise of giving all children a world-class education."

TIMSS and PIRLS, the international literacy, science, and math rankings released this week, measured nearly one million students worldwide on skills and their education community's attitudes towards learning.

Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taipei (Taiwan), and Japan were regular fixtures on the highest achievement lists for fourth and eighth grade literacy, math, and science.

"A number of nations are out-educating us today in the [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or] STEM disciplines," Duncan said, "if we as a nation don't turn that around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy."

There are common characteristics among the high-performing nations. They are:

  • A curriculum that addresses the knowledge and skills needed in the global knowledge-based economy.
  • Professional respect, learning, and advancement for teachers.
  • Emphasis on research and teacher leadership in schools (that is to say, teachers doing "action research" as a normal part of their practice).
  • A public will for excellence in education.

"Easier said than done," some say. "Impossible in the American context," others claim. But when you talk with leaders in the highest performing countries, especially in Asia, they say they got some of their best ideas from research institutions and school models in the United States. What we've failed to do is take these ideas to scale as other nations have. That is what's needed to go from above average to a world-class education for all our students.

Few things are more important. To echo Secretary Duncan's sentiments, our future well-being is at stake.

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