In education, it sometimes takes courage to do what ought to be common sense.
That’s a key lesson from several recent national and international assessments of U.S. education. These include the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card; a new version of the NAEP focused on large, urban districts; and the international rankings in the tri-annual PISA test.
Collectively, these assessments demonstrate extraordinary progress in the places where leaders have worked hardest and most consistently to bring change — but also a national failure to make nearly enough progress to keep up with our competitors.
Nationwide, students made modest progress in reading and math in 2013, with achievement edging up to record highs for fourth- and eighth-graders, the NAEP found.
Nearly every state has adopted higher academic standards, and most states have instituted new systems of teacher support and evaluation. It’s a testament to hardworking educators that they are implementing these changes and raising student performance at the same time.
But as the international PISA results demonstrate, our progress isn’t enough. Other countries are leapfrogging us at a time when education is vital to economic health in a global competition for jobs and innovation. Among the 65 countries and education systems that participate in PISA, the United States was surpassed by 27 in math and 14 in reading. That’s unacceptable.
We can learn, however, from some of the standouts. In contrast to a national picture of gradual progress, Tennessee and the District of Columbia reported striking jumps — in both math and reading achievement and in both grades examined, fourth and eighth.
We don’t know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the District of Columbia in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but politically hard, steps to help students. Both are places where vulnerable students predominate; 73 percent of D.C. students and 55 percent of Tennessee students are sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price meals.