With little fanfare in Utah, the 2012 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released Dec. 3, setting off yet another debate about why American schools continue to be mired in mediocrity.
The exam, given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development every three years to 500,000 15-year-olds in 65 countries and education systems, has a maximum score of 1,000 on each of three sections.
The U.S. math score (481) was below 29 other countries; our science score (497) was below 22; and our reading score (498) was below 19.
Perhaps most troubling is not even that American performance is so average, and so far behind world leader Shanghai, but that it has not changed over 10 years. U.S. math and reading scores were virtually the same on the 2012 PISA as they were in 2003, 2006, and 2009; science scores were nearly identical to scores in 2006 and 2009.
Yet one bright spot exists in the United States. Massachusetts, which volunteered to be overrepresented in the U.S. PISA sample so it could benchmark as a state against its global peers, demonstrated stellar achievement.
Its students tied for fourth in the world on the PISA reading exam, behind only Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Bay State students also excelled on the science portion of PISA, finishing in a tie for seventh globally. They even excelled in math, the subject that was the primary focus of PISA, finishing tied for 10th.
The reform policies of Massachusetts are all doable here in Utah and provide an effective template for unifying the various legislative and business agendas currently under discussion.
First, Massachusetts did not seek a quick fix. Rather, state leaders embarked on a long-term improvement effort in 1993, with passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, and have kept at it for 20 years. To have real impact, Utah leaders should develop a long-range strategic plan, a "Prosperity 2040" initiative, and elected officials should see it through.
Second, Massachusetts adopted rigorous standards and assessments for all students well before the No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. Because the Common Core standards will raise the bar in Utah and be much more aligned to the real world problem-solving tasks assessed by PISA, we need to stay the course and not bend to the protests of a vocal minority pushing to have these new standards repealed.
Finally, as part of its "grand bargain" to deliver more resources in exchange for greater accountability, Massachusetts made a substantial investment in its most disadvantaged students. When the state’s new "foundation" funding formula went into effect in 1993, poor school districts began receiving up to $350 million in new money each fiscal year, which makes Massachusetts "one of the few states in the country that spends more on students in poor districts than students in wealthy ones."
Given that 15 percent of the variation in American PISA scores is attributable to students’ socio-economic background, such a funding strategy is critical to poor schools in Utah.
Massachusetts should be a model for Utah. Let’s stop talking about it and actually start traveling on this journey.
David S. Doty is a consultant with Education Direction, a company focused on school reform strategy, and is the former superintendent of Canyons School District.
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