Kansas and Lawrence education officials find lessons in latest international tests

If Florida were a separate country, it would rank well below average among industrialized nations for how well its high school students perform on standardized tests for math, reading and science, according to a report out Tuesday.

Massachusetts and Connecticut, by contrast, would rank among the highest-performing countries in the world.

Those are just some of the findings from the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA test, which compared scores from more than half a million 15-year-old students from 65 countries around the world.

Those findings may be politically important in Kansas, where Florida is often cited by conservatives as a model for implementing vouchers, charter schools and other kinds of “school choice” reform programs.

“It certainly doesn’t speak well for many of the reforms being promulgated over testing, choice, charters, and things like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the like,” said Rick Ginsberg, dean of Kansas University’s School of Education. “We’re five years into one, and 13 years into the other. Maybe it suggests we need to take a different strategy.”

Overall, students in the United States ranked about average in science and reading, and below average in math. Asian and some northern European countries dominated the top tier of the rankings.

PISA is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 65 industrialized nations. It is intended to measure how well national education systems are teaching the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in a global marketplace, and it is often cited as a barometer for a nation’s ability to remain economically competitive.

Looking for political answers

In the United States and some other countries, though, education is largely a matter of local and regional policy. This year, for the first time, OECD reported scores for some countries at the state and regional level. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida were the only U.S. states to participate in that part of the 2012 test.

Florida is often cited as a model for conservative school reform initiatives such as high-stakes testing, school choice policies and an A-F grading system for schools, many of which were begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts and Connecticut are examples of states that spend considerably more per pupil than the national average. Kansas ranks slightly below the national average.

Looking at the top performing countries, OECD officials said, the most important factors were a strong focus on teacher quality, including investments in professional development, and allowing local autonomy for school officials to determine their own policies and priorities.

But there is little evidence to support most of the “reform” policies commonly advanced by either the political right or left in the United States: market-based competition and school choice models, which is popular among conservatives; or increased spending to reduce class sizes, as many liberals propose.

Lessons for Lawrence and Kansas

In years past, the state of Kansas included funding for professional development for teachers, but Lawrence school Superintendent Rick Doll noted that was eliminated several years ago. Still, he said, it remains a high priority in the Lawrence school district where schools have a shortened schedule each Wednesday to allow teachers time for additional training.

“That’s both for professional development and collaboration, which is extremely important,” Doll said. “The day when a single teacher closes her door and teaches her or his 22 kids is over. It’s much more of a team effort now. So giving teachers time for professional development and collaboration is very important.”

Meanwhile, Doll said, Lawrence schools still put a priority on smaller class sizes, especially in buildings with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students. But he said he agrees there is a limit to how much benefit can be gained through small class sizes.

“Getting too small doesn’t really provide you with that many more advantages,” he said. “Everybody thinks the lower you go, the better it is, and that’s really not true. If you go too high – I would suggest if you get up in the 35-40 range, that’s too high.”