No Passing Grade

The Wall Street Journal
December 7, 2004

Europeans might not like to admit it, but their (ever more elusive) goal of becoming the most dynamic knowledge-based economy by the year 2010 really is code for becoming more like the U.S. After all, it is America which, at least for the moment, occupies that top position.

A recent education study now raises serious doubts whether the U.S. will be able to hold this position for much longer. The study also underlined, however, that if the U.S. will ever be dethroned, it's unlikely to be by Europe.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development today published its 2003 PISA report, which tested the math, science, problem-solving and reading skills of 15-year-olds in 41 countries. With the exception of Finland, which ranks first or tied for first in every category, both Europe and the U.S. are by far outclassed by South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.

Only a generation ago, U.S. high school students ranked No. 1 in the world, but their performance has now fallen below the OECD average. Only when it comes to reading skills do American high-school students achieve at least average results. The U.S. dominance in technology, science and business is largely carried on the shoulders of the generation of high-school students who graduated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The situation in most European countries is not significantly better. If anything, the need for school reform in Europe is even greater. America's system of higher education is still unrivaled in the world. Its elite universities and research labs remain the destination of choice for many of the brightest and most talented minds in the world. This brain drain (including from Europe) helps the U.S. to somewhat compensate for the loss of home-grown talent as a result of its mediocre lower schools .

PISA researchers were able to identify some key characteristics that most successful school systems share, thus pointing to possible solutions for Europe and the U.S. They also debunked some common myths about education. ? Socialized economies do not guarantee an equitable distribution of education. In countries such as Germany, France and Belgium, the parents' socio-economic background has a much greater impact on the student's performance than in capitalist America.

The recipe for success, as project director Andreas Schleicher explained at a recent briefing hosted by the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based nonprofit, is a decentralized system where schools are given a large degree of autonomy over the curriculum and budget decisions. Whether schools are public or private is not as important as whether they "operate like a private one," Mr. Schleicher said.

Another important element is to have an open, flexible education system. In Germany, where the abysmal results of the 2000 study caused much public debate, the system is very rigid and often predetermines a child's future at an early age. As early as the age of 10, teachers decide whether a student will attend a school that ends with a university qualification or one where the diploma only opens the opportunity to learn a trade. This lowers the students' performance expectations and tempts teachers to get rid of "problem students" simply by demoting them.

Last but not least, the teacher's professionalism is important, which of course rises with the more autonomy and responsibility he or she is given. It is not simply a matter of remuneration. In Finland, teachers get paid relatively little, but according to Mr. Schleicher, there is a strong professional ethos and teachers routinely exchange experience to improve their skills.

With an ever-higher percentage of the workforce expected to be employed in knowledge-based industries, school reform in the U.S. and Europe is a question of economic survival. Decentralization, competition and flexibility are on the curriculum suggested by Mr. Schleicher. We'd give those proposals an "A."

[citation] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2003 PISA Report

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