Michelle Rhee: More Mediocrity for American Education

The bad news about those mediocre new rankings of America's educational system is the complacency about fixing them

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America’s education system earned headlines this week when it showed, yet again, that compared to the rest of the world, our schools perform in the middle of the pack. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested the math, science, and reading skills of 15 year-olds in 34 countries, and America failed to crack the top ten. Our kids finished 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math— behind countries including Estonia and Poland, and even developing countries like Vietnam.

The rankings themselves are not reason for outrage. Instead, what should be appalling to every American is the reality that tomorrow, when the PISA rankings fade from headlines, many advocates will go back to defending the current state of this nation’s public schools. They will argue, as they always do, that our education system is not broken — despite the fact that it performs at the same level as the Slovak Republic where the government spends half as much per pupil, and the GDP is 171 times smaller.

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Many commentators suggested we should just ignore the results altogether, pointing out that American schools have always ranked in the middle of the global pack. That’s true. But is it a reason to not strive for more? That kind of complacency with mediocrity offends students, offends educators and offends the American spirit.

We don’t settle for 26th place in Olympic competitions. We wouldn’t be happy with a foreign high-tech company usurping Apple’s market position. And when the Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik, we rose to the occasion and put the first human on the moon. America has never been satisfied with mediocrity.

That’s where we’re falling short today. The naysayers are right that our schools aren’t worse than before. The problem is that while America’s scores have flatlined, countries like Ireland and Germany are leap-frogging us. These countries are taking bold steps to bring out the excellence in their students. We, on the other hand, spend so much time making our kids feel good about themselves, we’ve lost sight of taking the time necessary to make them good.

American children are just as capable of high achievement as their global peers. There is no shortage of talented and dedicated educators in our country. But the system is failing our kids and teachers. We need to fix that, because America is the greatest country in the world, and our children deserve the best education system in the world–one that lives up to our nation’s promise as a land of equal opportunity. That opportunity comes through hard work, perseverance, and an educational structure through which children from all backgrounds can excel.

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The stakes are higher than just test scores; it’s about competing in an increasingly global economy. The best jobs–indeed most jobs–will go to the most capable individuals, regardless of geography. Children in Sacramento or Detroit will not be competing for jobs against kids in Memphis or Denver, but in Shanghai and Seoul. That reality is fast approaching.

Perhaps America needs to hit bottom — 34th out of 34 — before we’ll truly embrace reform. That’s what happened in Tennessee and Washington, D.C. before politicians embraced change. Several years ago, policymakers in those jurisdictions had enough with ranking at the bottom of the nation. We raised standards. We implemented rigorous evaluations to identify and reward great educators, and help struggling teachers improve through professional development. We focused on students’ needs above the needs of all others — administrators, unions, politicians or otherwise. The result: the 2013 National Report Card showed historic gains for D.C. and Tennessee students. Those successes are early, and for them to take hold it will require a sustained commitment, but if reforms can improve those states, it can happen nationwide.

The countries that are excelling academically are doing similar things.  Setting high standards for all students. Investing in teacher effectiveness. Ensuring accountability at every level. That’s the recipe for improving American schools and putting them in their rightful place at the top of the international podium. Underpinning it all, we must first have a national desire to become the best, and our reaction to the PISA results will indicate whether that is the case.

Ms. Rhee was chancellor of the public school system in Washington, D.C., from 2007-2010, and founder of StudentsFirst, an education reform advocacy organization.

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