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Poor U.S. results highlight need to improve K-12 education

“Remember the movie Groundhog Day, where the main character wakes up every morning and realizes nothing has changed? He’s reliving the same day over and over again. Well, that pretty much sums up the latest PISA results for 15 year olds in the U.S. Their scores in reading, math, and science have not changed since 2003.”

That’s how NPR’s Morning Edition greeted what it calls the “sobering” results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The results are sobering – even arresting – because American 15 year olds have fared poorly for years in comparison with students from other countries on the triennial assessment administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

No change = no good news

The organization tracks student achievement in both OECD and non-OECD countries. It assesses not only acquired knowledge in reading, science, and math, but also examines how well students can apply that knowledge in real-world situations.

This year, American students not only showed no improvement, they actually slipped slightly as other countries passed them by. Among the 65 countries included in the most recent assessment, U.S. students ranked 31st in math, 24th in science, and 21st in reading.

According to PISA, U.S. students have particular weaknesses in performing math tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world challenges and translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in everyday life.

Lagging behind international competitors

Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter testified before Congress this year that “America’s K-12 education system is undermining our national competitiveness.” Why? Because American schools’ curricula “do not prepare American students for productive work.” (He elaborated on America’s competitiveness challenges in an interview with Charlie Rose that is well worth watching).

In a recent presentation at a gathering sponsored by the Harvard Business School, the Gates Foundation, and the Boston Consulting Group, Porter highlighted just what these education trends can mean. He noted that in a recent global assessment of literacy, problem solving, and numeracy, U.S. adults generally lag behind their international peers (see chart). In some instances – like with adults aged 16-24 and 25-34 – the U.S. lags badly.

Given the increasingly competitive global economic environment, numbers like these should be setting off alarm bells in Washington and in our state capitals.

If we have any hope of changing those numbers in the future, we will have to undertake serious reforms equal to the sobering news from the PISA report.

One meaningful step to take is to ensure the Common Core State Standards are fully implemented across the country, so we begin to encourage deeper learning and more critical thinking among all students. This is something I have addressed several times recently.

Why do we care? Because ExxonMobil is a U.S.-based company, and we recognize that improving U.S. educational performance is vital to the success of our industry and to broader national competitiveness in the years to come.

A recent alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for mathematics and PISA suggests that full implementation of the Common Core would significantly improve U.S. students’ PISA results (see chapter 4).

As the latest PISA results show, what we’re doing now simply isn’t working.

  • Worth a deeper look...