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States Seek Global Perspectives to Build Top-Notch K-12 School Systems

By Michelle Exstrom

Maryland felt the urgency. With more than 60% of its graduating high school seniors unable to read at a 10th grade level or pass a basic algebra test, the danger of doing nothing was undeniable.

Despite the state’s generous funding for education, student performance on international tests was mediocre, with a significant, persistent achievement gap between white students and those of color. Struggling students in poor schools had little additional support, and teachers were paid well below their peers in other professions. 

So the legislature and governor convened a work group, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. Charged with creating a world-class education system, the commission’s chairman, William Kirwan, a former University System of Maryland chancellor, described the group’s work as “potentially the most important thing I have ever been involved in.”

The bipartisan commission of 25 policymakers and stakeholders wanted to determine where its education system fell short and what needed to change. Commission members engaged state and local policymakers, teachers, and business and community leaders in the process and held public hearings and community meetings across the state, getting input from thousands of residents.

“Every state in the union should go through this process,” says Maryland Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D), chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a commission member. “Until you get all of the policymakers and stakeholders together and truly study the gaps, you won’t realize the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of your current system and how you can fix it.”

The commission partnered with the National Center on Education and the Economy, which painstakingly compared the state’s policies, practices and funding with those of the world’s highest performing countries and states, including Finland, Ontario, Shanghai, Singapore, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey. Finally, the commission considered the best practices from around the world identified by NCSL’s international education study group in its report, “No Time to Lose.”

A National Concern

Maryland is not alone. Most U.S. state education systems continue to fall dangerously behind their global counterparts in a number of international comparisons and on our own measures of progress.

U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 30th among teens from 70 countries on the 2015 PISA test, the most recent cross-national report on educational progress. Specifically, U.S. teens ranked 40th in mathematics, 24th in reading and 25th in science, trailing behind their counterparts in China, EstoThe nia, Russia, Poland and Vietnam, among others. The PISA—short for Program for International Student Assessment—was created by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and tests 15-year-olds’ ability in those three subjects every three years.

In addition to reading, math and science, students were tested in collaborative problem solving in 2012 and 2015 and global competence in 2018. (It’s interesting to note that U.S. students performed much better in collaborative problem solving than would be expected based on their other scores.) PISA results for 2018 will be available in December.

A separate assessment of U.S. fourth and eighth graders in 2017—the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka “The Nation’s Report Card”—reflected similarly lackluster results: Fewer than 40% of fourth and eighth graders were proficient in math, and only 35% were proficient in reading.

National averages, of course, don’t reflect significant differences among states and population groups. Achievement rates were even lower for students of color, for example.

The results are troubling, especially in the current, ever-evolving world economy in which our young workers may no longer be competitive for future jobs—jobs created right here in our own states.

Study Group Looks Worldwide

In response to these concerns, NCSL formed the bipartisan International Study Group, made up of veteran legislators and staff who were interested in improving their education systems. Twenty-eight members convened in 2014 to study 10 of the world’s top education systems. They wanted to know what aspects of those systems could be applied in our states to improve students’ learning. Seeing that Estonia, Poland and Taiwan had achieved rapid improvements in their PISA scores, they felt our states—from Arkansas to Maryland to Wisconsin—could surely do the same.

After five years of study—with members visiting most of the top countries—the group discovered that, despite widely varying economic, political and cultural characteristics, world-class educational systems share four common elements:

  • A strong early-education system, with extra support for strugglers.
  • A reimagined and professional teacher workforce.
  • A robust career and technical education program.
  • A comprehensive, carefully designed system.

The group published these and other findings in the 2016 report “No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State.” Its main message: We know what works in high-performing countries. If we get to work now and apply these principles in our states, we can quickly turn this around, just as the high-performing countries have done.

No Silver Bullets

The four common elements are not just random strategies. They complement each other and fit into a comprehensive reform effort. Learning opportunities, for example, are improved when students arrive at school ready to learn. Setting high standards for students does little unless they have highly effective teachers. Raising entry standards for teacher education institutions gets us nowhere if we do not also make teaching an attractive career choice.

This kind of consistent, well-designed reform is rare in the United States, which has sought “silver bullet” solutions without setting decisive goals and creating thoughtful, coherent systems, as the high-performing countries have done. States’ piecemeal approaches, for example, include increasing teacher pay without requiring better teacher preparation programs or decreasing class sizes without also restructuring teachers’ time.

Following the release of “No Time to Lose,” legislators and staff in the study group—and others convinced of the message—dove deeper into the details of each of the four elements. They met with world leaders on early education, teaching, and career and technical education to learn just how other countries’ systems and governance structures worked. They held hearings and convened work groups of educators and policymakers to discuss whether their states could apply lessons from the world’s best.

In its report, the study group issued this challenge: “As state policymakers, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

“If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world.”

Report Inspires States to Act

Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin have all hosted legislative hearings on international comparisons in education.

But Maryland has taken this challenge the furthest.

David Driscoll, Massachusetts’ former education commissioner, says Maryland’s commission has achieved what few states have: a cogent plan that brings together the elements that could substantially improve student achievement, respect for educators, opportunities for young children, and career needs for high school graduates. “Throw in coordinated provisions for governance, attention to at-risk kids and school leadership opportunities, and you have a real chance at true reform in education,” he says.

The commission issued an interim report with a call to action in January this year.

“The commission’s recommendations create for Maryland a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a bold course and create a bright future for the state and its citizens,” the report stated. “The question that remains is, Does the state have the will, discipline and persistence to make it happen? We believe it must.”

The commission sponsored legislation—a 10-year “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future”—this year that will fund full-day prekindergarten for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds; set higher standards so that all students are ready for college or a career after high school; and create a strong accountability system to oversee its recommendations.

The bill was enacted with a promise to raise the state’s early childhood, primary and secondary education systems to world-class standards.

“Garnering as much support for this effort as possible over the next 10 years of implementation will be crucial,” commission member McIntosh says. “This work is the root of the future of the economy in Maryland, and everyone, including our business community, has a big stake in this effort.”

The effort, according to Kirwan, the commission’s chairman, will enable Maryland to have an education system as good as any in the world. “I think we could be a model for the country,” he says. David Hornbeck, former superintendent of Philadelphia schools, agrees. “Over more than 40 years,” he says, “I have worked with governors, legislators, educators and corporate leaders in 22 states to develop specific policies and funding to promote systemic education change. Without a doubt, the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations are the best.”

Time to Think Big

“No Time to Lose” has emboldened those once content to tinker with their systems and hope for better results to think big. Lawmakers in Colorado, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico have used the report to inform their councils, direct their discussions and set their goals.

“We should be clear about ‘No Time to Lose,’” says Anthony Mackay, CEO and president of the National Center on Education. “This publication has not only had an impact in these and other states, it’s been shared with our international colleagues, who believe the work is superb, and they in turn are using it in their own jurisdictions.”

An informal partnership in Indiana—the governor, legislative leaders, and the state’s policymakers, workforce leaders and philanthropists—is developing youth apprenticeships and new graduation requirements for career and technical education. The goal is to create strong career paths in K-12 and postsecondary education. Several of the state’s teacher-preparation programs also are adopting international best practices to improve teacher salaries, build teaching career ladders and create one-year teacher residency programs.

“Businesses in Indiana are begging for a skilled workforce, and we have to modify our system to respond,” Indiana Representative Robert Behning (R) says. “This isn’t education versus the economy—they are one in the same. We need to build seamless systems and governance structures to support a system of lifelong learning.”

In 2017, New Mexico’s Legislative Education Study Committee teamed with international experts for a two-year examination of “No Time to Lose.” With the state adjusting to a new governor and education secretary and facing a lawsuit claiming students did not have the opportunity to receive a sufficient education, Senator Mimi Stewart (D), a member of NCSL’s study group, wanted to ensure that her fellow committee members were familiar with the four elements of high-performing systems.

By 2019, the legislature was ready to act. That year, lawmakers invested $500 million in increased teacher salaries, scholarships and loans, improved early education and extended learning opportunities, targeted at-risk youth programs, career pathways for high school students and improved career and technical education.

“Because of the study and work with educators and other stakeholders, everywhere I go in New Mexico people are talking about ‘No Time to Lose,’” Stewart says. “While we still want and need a commission like Maryland’s, we’ve made good progress with additional investments where we know it makes a difference.”

Tough Comparisons

Considering their states’ differences in history, tradition, culture, government, population and heterogeneity, many lawmakers balk at comparing the U.S. as a whole with other countries. It’s often more realistic to compare countries with individual U.S. states because of similar sizes and governance structures.

Many states still have systems of elementary and secondary education designed to meet the needs of the mass-production industrial economy of a century ago. The same was once true of the world economies the U.S. now competes against. Many jobs could once be done by workers with a seventh or eighth grade level of literacy. But no longer. Advancing automation and competition from low-wage countries have increased the demand for higher skilled workers.

The strategies most states have pursued to improve their education systems have simply not led to broader academic gains. A few states and districts have found some success, but the country as a whole has not.

In the meantime, the countries outperforming the U.S. have redesigned their entire systems to achieve the success they enjoy and are now preparing their students for the future of work. Our competitors offer virtually all their students the high-quality education once reserved for a small elite. This is the challenge that the U.S., through individual state actions, must meet.

And meet soon. The clock is ticking.

There is no time to lose.

Michelle Exstrom directs NCSL’s Education Program.

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Moving Mountains: Six Things to Consider When Updating Your K-12 School Finance Formulas

Leaders, Please Report to the Principal's Office: Today's Principal Is Less a School Boss and More a Supportive Leader

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