PISA’s lessons for Louisiana

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What an international comparison tells us about reclaiming the promise of public education for all children

(Baton Rouge – December 6, 2013) Louisiana’s decision makers should pay attention to the lessons that can be learned from a new international comparison of student achievement, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said today.

“We can learn a lot from the successes of others,” Monaghan said. “Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the things that make public education work so well in other countries. Doing so would go a long way toward reclaiming the promise of public education for all children.”

The LFT president said that Louisiana and much of our nation is obsessed with a corporate model, privatization and a top-down, test-based approach that labels students, teachers, and schools, but apparently hasn’t improved student achievement.

The latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results show that U.S. students ranked 17th in the world in reading, 21st in science and 26th in math. More than 70 countries participate in PISA.

“These results should not lead us to believe the sky is falling,” Monaghan said. “The U.S. still has the world’s strongest economy. We produce more Nobel Prize winners, more patents and more innovative technology than the rest of the world. But we should acknowledge that many of the so-called reforms have not produced the results that were promised. Perhaps, the conversation should be about changing what has become the new status quo of “spend to test and test to spend.”

The first step, Monaghan said, should be to acknowledge the role that poverty plays in education.

“The United States has a higher child poverty rate than most other nations in the study,” Monaghan said. “Yet we rank near the bottom in providing equal access to educational resources to our poorest children.”

Although the PISA study shows that our country spends more per capita on education than others, the numbers change drastically when higher education spending is removed from the equation, he said.

The unequal distribution of resources explains a lot about the U.S. educational shortfall, Monaghan said. Ours is one of only four nations in which the pupil-teacher ratio is actually higher in poor communities than in wealthier ones.

What’s more, he said, the United States lags behind most of the world in early childhood education.

“We know that if impoverished children don’t get a good start early in their lives, it is much more difficult for them to succeed in school,” he said.

What positive lessons can be learned from the PISA study? First of all, Monaghan said, leaders must stop demonizing teachers and their unions.

“American primary teachers spend more time in class and earn less money than their counterparts around the world,” Monaghan said. “More successful nations treat teachers like professionals and give them time to prepare lessons, collaborate with their peers and meet with parents.”

Monaghan said the most successful countries in the world have strong teacher unions. “The higher a country ranks,” he said, “the study shows that ‘the more likely it is that the country is working constructively with unions’ rather than demonizing them.”

Specific recommendations offered by the LFT president, based on the PISA survey, include:

  • Invest in high quality early childhood education for all children.
  • Provide more resources to the children who need them the most.
  • Give teachers time to prepare, collaborate and meet with parents.
  • Properly implement a robust curriculum that meets students’ needs now and in the future.
  • Use tests that help teachers meet student needs rather than simply label students and / or their schools.
  • Treat teachers as professionals with expertise in their respective fields. Top down reforms have failed and will continue to fail.
  • Involve the community and collaborate with teacher unions in creating schools that meet the real needs of all children.