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Being average not an option for U.S. students facing competitive global economy

Results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were released earlier this week. The survey is conducted every three years to assess the extent to which 15-year-olds in countries around the world can apply the knowledge they have gained and the skills they have acquired to real-world problems. The results should be concerning for all of us.

While today’s top achieving education systems have made significant gains, U.S. scores have stayed consistent, which means our ranking among other countries is falling behind. Today, U.S. students score below average in math and average in science and reading. And, as we know, Arizona students on average typically perform more poorly than students in other states.

Instead of pointing fingers or making excuses, it’s important to understand two things: why everyone should care about these PISA results, and the role each of us can play in reversing this trend.

Today’s students face an increasingly competitive global economy driven by human capital. They are no longer just competing for jobs with their peers from around the U.S., but from around the world. We must prepare our children for the jobs of the future — jobs that may not even exist today, and are likely to be even more complex and technologically demanding. Understanding that the highest performing education systems may differ from us in many ways, socially and economically, the bottom line is being average is not an option.

Our goal as a country should be to compete with the best in the world. We have to close the achievement gap between the average American student and the average student in industrial countries that we consider collaborators and competitors. We need to provide students an education that builds the high-level skills required to solve complex problems, to innovate, to think critically, to work with others in productive ways, to lead when necessary, and to communicate effectively.

If we aren’t able to change these trends and improve student performance in Arizona and across the U.S., our economic competitiveness will suffer. In Arizona, we know that 85 percent of high growth, high wage jobs (classified as $13/hour or more) require some form of post-secondary education, yet less than 25 percent of our high school students complete a degree within six years of graduating. This is a problem that harms all of us — our children’s future, our economy and our individual quality of life are at risk.

The good news is that we can improve education. All of us must work together to demand a world-class education for ALL students, regardless of their background, income level or zip code.

A world-class education ensures that all children are prepared to succeed in the early grades. We know early literacy is the foundation for long-term success in college, career and life. So we need investments in early learning and literacy so all students are able to read fluently by the end of third grade. According to 2009 PISA results, students who had attended pre-primary education tend to perform better at the age of 15 than those who had not attended pre-primary education.

In addition, if our expectation is that our students will be able to compete with their peers from around the world for the best jobs, we must have higher expectations for them. We have to ensure all students graduate prepared and that they have access to post-secondary education, training or a career.

We must have rigorous academic standards that are benchmarked against top performing countries. An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the standards would yield significant performance gains in PISA.

Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards (formerly known as Common Core) raise expectations for what our children should know and be able to do to be competitive. These standards are currently being taught in Arizona districts and charter schools today, but our teachers need additional training and support and new materials to be able to teach them effectively. In Arizona, we also need a new assessment, one that is aligned to the higher standards and that measures college and career readiness. The assessment must emphasize real learning, not just memorization of facts.

And finally, while PISA findings show that higher per pupil spending doesn’t always translate into better performance, we know that adequate funding is a critical resource, ensuring our schools and educators can provide the highest-quality education to all students. In Arizona, where per pupil spending is among the lowest in the nation, we need to invest new resources and strategically evaluate the impact of our existing resources. We must make a sustained commitment to education funding that achieves the student outcomes that we desire.

The United States is still one of the best places to live in the world, but a world-class education system is the key to keeping it that way. As a country that is a leader in innovation and collaboration, that means we all need to work together to leverage our strengths and grow our competitive edge. We need students who are motivated and ready to learn, engaged parents, trained and committed educators, and capable and supportive school leaders and elected officials. A world-class education for all children starts with higher expectations for all of us.

Pearl Chang Esau, president/CEO, Expect More Arizona, a nonpartisan education advocacy organization.

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