States Should Share Best Practices

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States Should Share Best Practices

How much American K-12 students are learning is an issue that remains under a constant cloud of debate. Some warn of dismal results and failing systems. Others say the achievement tests used to rank students are often inadequate and frequently measure the wrong things. Some even say fake crises are dreamed up in order to fundamentally transform the way Americans educate children.

Common CoreAn informative Briefing Paper completed by the Economic Policy Institute is titled “Bringing it Back Home: Why state comparisons are more useful than international comparisons for improving U.S. education policy.” It was written by a Stanford education and economics professor, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, and a Russian economics researcher. They believe we should look at our own successful education systems in various states, rather than gazing internationally. (The full report can be found at, 10-30-15)

Martin Carnoy, Emma Garcia, and Tatiana Khavenson wrote a commentary in Education Week that summarizes their EPI findings. They say, “Schools in the United States are not doing as poorly as international-test scores suggest.” They continue, “It makes sense to look to high performers in Europe and Asia for new education strategies if we lack our own success stories, but that is not the case.” They say that “the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides a state-by-state picture of our schools that is much more relevant than either PISA or other major international tests, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).”

Results from their study of two decades of PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP scores led them to conclude that education policymakers need to calm down about American students’ international test results. They report:

After we adjusted for socioeconomic differences in the samples of students taking the PISA and TIMSS tests, we found that performance on international math and reading tests in states such as Massachusetts and North Carolina is as high as, or higher than, in the highest-scoring countries in Europe. We also showed that gains in TIMSS mathematics scores over the past 12 to 16 years in several states are much higher than gains in other countries.

When some states are successfully educating students, it makes sense to look to those states for policies, curriculum, standards, and tips to improve results in other states. The authors suggest:

If students with similar family academic resources attending schools with similar socioeconomic and ethnic composition in some states make much larger gains than in other states, those larger gains are more likely to be related to specific state policies that could be applied elsewhere in the United States.

This doesn’t always result in hero states to be emulated by all others. Some states achieve better results in reading than in math, and vice versa. The researchers say:
States that made large reading gains were not necessarily the same states that made large math gains. For example, Maryland and Florida made relatively larger gains in reading than in mathematics. And Texas and Massachusetts made large gains in math, but not reading.

The authors use Massachusetts and Connecticut as examples, since students in these neighboring states had the same NAEP math score in 2003. They report, “By 2013, Massachusetts students had increased by 17 points over similar students attending similar schools in Connecticut. We need to learn why students in Massachusetts took off in math after 2003, while students in Connecticut did not.” (Education Week, 2-10-16)

Common Core national standards, which impose unproven concepts written by those who know little about teaching, should be replaced in every state. Common-sense sharing across state lines is less expensive, not copyrighted, and doesn’t result in oddball requirements like reading informational texts instead of great literature, or doing math in distinctly weird and unnecessarily complicated ways.

Looking to international trends in education can be interesting, but it is not always useful or productive. Americans certainly don’t want their children attending parent-funded, after-school math tutoring until late at night just to achieve a test score. Students in South Korea, China, and Japan score well on international tests, but the quality of life for those students and for their families is greatly diminished in order to achieve that distinction. Test results aren’t necessarily indicative of how well students can think. Many also say that the curriculum, methods, and focus on testing used in those Asian nations kill creativity. It is that same creativity and innovation that has made America the epicenter of innovation. We must not kill it.