According to many lawmakers, the barely average standing of U.S. students in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings is all the proof you need that our schools are failing. They have used the rankings to push ineffective and often destructive policies. But these so-called reformers are missing or ignoring key facts and information. For example, do most countries test their students as much as we do?
The answer, of course, is no. Most countries only test once or twice before their students enter high school, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, quite a contrast to the current testing regime in this country. High-performing nations also use performance-based tests, open-ended essays, oral assessments and project-based tests. Here in the U.S., there’s more pressure to prepare students for testing beginning in preschool. Furthermore, other countries, instead of narrowing the curriculum, emphasize music and foreign languages.
Darling-Hammond, one of the most influential education policy writer and researchers in the United States, discussed testing, school equity, teaching quality and teacher accountability at the NEA Foundation’s 8th Annual Cross-Site Convening, a gathering of education experts and union-district leadership teams from across the United States. These teams belong to the NEA Foundation’s Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative and its Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, both of which strive for better student success, learning conditions, and union-district collaboration.
The goal of the event, explained Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, was ”to share our collective experience, our strength and our hope as we define for ourselves what collaboration means. We are challenging ourselves to transcend old paradigms, now obsolete in the face of 21st century context of teaching and learning.”
These”old paradigms” include the high stakes standardized testing regime and ineffective tools of teacher evaluation that proliferated after the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) beginning in 2002. It’s no coincidence, said Darling-Hammond, that U.S. scores on PISA have stagnated since NCLB.
“The theory of reform behind NCLB – to test and apply sanctions to the failure to meet expected targets – has not made a major difference in student achievement in every one of the areas measured by PISA,”‘ she explained.
Darling-Hammond also pointed out that if you factor in only those schools where less than 10 percent of the students live in poverty, the U.S, actually ranks number one in the world on PISA. In schools where 25 percent live in poverty, the U.S ranks third. Even when you raise that number to 50 percent, our students rank way above the international average. The takeaway is clear, Darling-Hammond said.
“Those countries spend their money in highly equitable ways. If you spend more in schools on the education of children who have fewer socioeconomic advantages, you do better as a country. Other countries invested more money and that is what shot them up in the rankings.”
Some school systems in the U.S have made significant progress when they make smart investments. In 1998, after many court decisions, New Jersey revamped its school system by reallocating its funds. Over 10 years, it cut the achievement gap in half.
Investments in students must also be accompanied by investments in teacher quality. Teachers need more training opportunities, mentoring, collaboration, effective induction programs, and national board certification opportunities, Darling-Hammond said. The most effective teachers have all had three or more years of teaching, national board certification and certification in their specific field. Yet not all teachers possess at least one of these characteristics—and that needs to change.
“We know that when you use professional teaching standards to guide preparation, teacher effectiveness improves,” she explained.
Professional development needs to be done in a “systemic” way, Darling-Hammond added, and that teacher education programs must address how teachers approach their content, curriculum and practices in the classroom. But for this to happen, teacher evaluation must be about development, rather than testing for punishment. That means a new accountability system must focus on improvement.
“In order to get that, we’re going to have to leverage a lot of change in teacher evaluation,” Darling-Hammond said. “… If all we do is focus on teacher evaluation after people get in the profession, we will be building on a house of sand.”
Video: Linda Darling-Hammond at the 2014 NEA Cross-Site Convening (remarks begin at the 59:30 mark)