Anxiety over PISA scores calls for U.S. to consider the source of its competitive advantage

December 8, 2010 •

With the release of PISA scores yesterday, anxiety rose in face of middling US results, and strong Chinese performance—particularly Shanghai. The references to Russia are back, with the President saying that, “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.”

The United States scored in the 20’s on most subjects measures. The image of China as rising power: “The(ir) work ethic is amazingly strong,” a former US official said. “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals,” said Chester Finn, “and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

The urge in the face of such challenges to date has been to double-down on standards, on central controls, and management—‘better leadership!’

Instead, we might think that the best response to challenges from global powers is to continue evolving public education toward the type of system that has made the U.S. strong in other aspects of its economic life.

Now more than ever we need a sound system—one that enables variability, innovation, and allows teachers to discover and develop new personalized ways of learning. Its incentives must be such that successful schools are rewarded with students that choose to enroll there; poor schools close; and the professionalism of teaching is improved—likely the only reliable way to improve the prestige and appeal of the job.