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PISA Shows U.S. 'Standing Still' in Education, Says Ed. Dept. Official

There has been a good amount of concern expressed about the results that American students put up on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), although my colleague Liana Heitin has spelled out some reasons not to rush to conclusions based just on those test results. But during a conversation with state legislators at the National Conference of State Legislature's forum in Washington on Dec. 6, acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education  James H. Shelton argued that it was "mythology" to say that the U.S. had truly "fallen behind" in terms of actual educational performance.

What did Shelton mean behind that? According to the acting deputy secretary, the U.S. was in fact "standing still," in the sense that other nations have, over time, not only adopted successful U.S. educational policy and practices, but made them broadly available, with the results showing up on PISA: "They're scaling up what we do."

In essence, Shelton argued that America was being beaten at its own game. But this idea that "standing still" as other nations move past the U.S. is somehow substantively different that "falling behind" won't necessarily sit well with everyone.

On the same topic, Shelton also said that to the extent the U.S. would build upon what it has done and discover new methods of delivering effective instruction, he was worried about "ideologues" who could "keep us from exploring what the future can look like." He didn't single out the Common Core State Standards as a specific subject of ideological attacks, but no K-12 topic is drawing as much political heat as the common core. Shelton's boss, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, doesn't like how common core has been attacked politically, and he's made a point (sometimes in controversial fashion) of trying to combat those who want to bring the standards down.

In response to questions from legislators, Shelton spent a fair amount of time discussing the teaching profession. He said that Title II dollars from the federal government could be used more intelligently to help build a stronger teacher community that would make their jobs easier "even as they do more challenging work." He said he wanted policymakers to show young people preparing to become teachers that "You don't have to martyr yourself" to enter the profession, and highlighted the possibility of paying teachers more.

Challenged by a state lawmaker over the idea that teachers were facing a stress on competition at the expense of collaboration, Shelton stressed that the two were not in fact incompatible in the profession. And he stressed the need for teaching to become a more prestigious profession. As an example of that last point, he said that when he attended parties in Washington, he saw that people often had the same awkward, muted reactions when they met teacher as when they met stay-at-home moms.

To be clear about that last point, Shelton didn't seem to be equating the prestige of teachers and stay-at-home moms himself. He was talking about the perception many have of teachers. But it's interesting that for the second time in a month, a top-ranking U.S. education official has referenced mothers when publicly discussing education policy—is this intentional? And stay-at-home moms may not be the biggest fan of how Shelton put his argument. 

Not surprisingly, given that his audience was state lawmakers, Shelton stressed their power in determining good K-12 policy, specifically in their ability to remove the "worst performers" from the picture, in comparison to the federal government. "We can't do surgical strikes," Shelton said of Washington officials, but state policymakers can. 

Finally, asked about the odds of this Congress reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Shelton responded: "I have no idea." But in case you're wondering whether that response is surprisingly vague, he did subsequently stress the general lack of optimism that federal lawmakes would act in the near future. 

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