The Highest-Performing Students in the World Live in…Shanghai?!?!

December 8th, 2010

Category: News

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – an exam administered to 15-year-olds in 65 countries – and the results for the United States aren’t pretty.  While American students’ performance in science reached the international average, we still lagged behind the majority of industrialized countries in mathematics and reading (and we are not in the top 15 in any area).

However, one surprising development is around the performance of Chinese students living in Shanghai.  These students, who took PISA for the first time, outperformed their typically high-scoring international counterparts in Singapore, Switzerland, and Finland.

The easy response would be to nitpick and find reasons at the margins on why we score as low as we do.  However, we believe that we must admit that the continued below-average performance of American students compared to our international peers is one of America’s most pressing issues.  Secretary Duncan succinctly summed up this belief by stating, “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

These results come on the heels of another study (previously covered here) that highlighted our performance isn’t just limited to average students – but extends all the way to our top-performers.  Therefore, we can’t blame these results on one group of students.  Rather, we must recognize that all students aren’t performing at high levels and work to increase student achievement across the country – or face dire economic consequences.  President Obama highlighted this urgency at a speech in North Carolina Monday when he stated, “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.”

The question we must ask ourselves is what are these countries doing – or what are we not doing – to get these results?  The answers, believe it or not, are not far off from our current efforts under Race to the Top.  As highlighted previously, many of these countries recognize that talented teachers are the key to success.  Therefore, they enact policies and practices that treat the teachers like the professionals they are.  This means:

  • only allowing high-performing students into teacher preparation programs;
  • subsidizing the education of those entering the profession (signaling national importance);
  • carefully on-ramping educators into the profession;
  • conducting rigorous evaluations and utilizing the results to inform professional development; and
  • providing additional compensation and responsibilities for their most effective educators.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, a quick comparison to the typical American educator’s experience is eye-opening.  Most American educators:

  • typically face little to no barriers to entry into teacher preparation programs;
  • pay for their own education through loans or other means;
  • are placed in our highest-need schools in a sink-or-swim fashion;
  • receive the highest rating on their evaluation system with no feedback for development; and
  • are paid solely on the basis of years of experience and graduate credits earned – both of which have little correlation to student learning.

If we continue down our current path, we clearly see where that leads – increased international competition with decreased American competitiveness.  However, if we take note of best practices and implement them within our education context, maybe other countries will soon look at our education system for ways to move the ball forward on student learning.  

Brett Turner



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