The results are especially worrisome as the PISA assessment is not a simple rote memorization exam but instead is designed to answer questions such as: Are students prepared to meet the challenges of the future? Are they able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? How well equipped are they to continue learning throughout life? In 2008, I led a group of 15 Connecticut education leaders on a study tour of Finland to try and learn the secrets of Finland’s’ success. What we found was somewhat surprising. The Finnish school day and school year is shorter than ours, they have no national testing system, students don’t being formal schooling until the age of 7, they don’t do test prep and the national curriculum document for K-12 is less than 1 inch thick. Instead, what they do have are highly qualified teachers who are typically in the top 10% of the University Class and a very highly literate and engaged student population. Students are engaged because that is the norm in a society that puts a very high value on education, almost as a source of national pride. My son spent a year as a high school senior in Finland and his observation was that Finland has good and bad teachers, but all students perform well, in spite of the teacher. So, before we go running off to China to see what they are doing we could just start by re-examining the Finnish situation. Finland decided in the early 1990’s, with the collapse of their major trading partner the Soviet Union, that education was a national priority and that “brainpower” was a strategic resource that could not be squandered. They put in place a long-range plan to transform their education system in a way that would guarantee their global economic competitiveness and produce the most highly educated populace in the world. The Finns have succeeded and elements of their plan are still in effect today as evidenced by the creation of Aalto University or “Innovation U”. So, what is America to do, obviously, test prep and rote memorization is not the answer. Unfortunately the solutions are more complicated and given the polarization of our political leaders in Washington it is doubtful we can muster the same kind of nation-wide strategy. The one chance may be the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is expected to be a priority for both parties and branches in 2011. One thing is clear, if nothing changes, we can expect more of the same next time, only worse!
The 2009 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were announced this week and the wailing in Washington D.C. is being heard around the world. Once again, 15 year-old students in the U.S. have performed at or below average when compared to half a million students from 65 other OECD countries on the PISA reading, science and mathematics exams. One surprise from this year’s results is that students from Shanghai China now join Finland and Korea as one of the top three performing nations in the world. Unfortunately, the U.S. results are nothing new and if anything they continue the trend of average and below average performance of our students on the PISA exam, despite almost 8 years of the No Child Left Behind induced testing regiments across America.