Teachers union chief offers four steps to boost US results on PISA test

At a Monitor-hosted breakfast, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers, said the US could look to other countries for ways to improve the lackluster performance on the PISA test.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on December 4, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

The United States placed well out of the lead in an international test of 15-year-old students in science, math, and reading whose results were released this week.

At a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Wednesday, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers, offered four steps for improving the nation’s performance on future versions of the Program for International Assessment (PISA) test. (To view a C-SPAN video of the breakfast, click here.)

She cautioned that the US is different from Shanghai, China, and Finland, among the many countries whose students outperformed Americans. Still, she said, “we have to look at some of the things that they have done and say can we adapt that here.”

Results from of the 2012 PISA test given to 510,000 students in 65 countries showed that 29 countries or education systems had higher math scores than the US, while in science American 15-year-olds were outranked by their counterparts in 22 countries, and in reading by teens in 19 nations. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a "picture of educational stagnation."

Ms. Weingarten, who previously taught history at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., began her list by noting that “the countries that out-compete us actually really value, deeply respect, and value public education.” She argued that the PISA results offer “a big caution flag” for policies where public schools have to compete with other choices.

“Number two,” said Weingarten, the PISA data say "a lot about preparing teachers, supporting teachers, giving them time to collaborate.”

Her third observation was that in countries that outperform the US, parents “are really engaged – not just told what to do but they are really engaged."

“Number four,” Weingarten said, is that “the Common Core matters and standards matter but done the right way. Not just thrown out there and said 'go do it,' but really implemented well.”  She is referring to the Common Core State Standards being implemented in 45 states and in Washington, D.C. 

During the breakfast, Weingarten said “the governors and the state [education] chiefs were right about saying let’s figure out a set of standards that are aligned to what kids need to know and be able to do in the global economy. And they moved pretty fast about it.… This is what didn’t happen. The public wasn’t involved. Parents weren’t involved. The districts weren’t involved.”

After saying that she would list four items to help improve US students’ performance, Weingarten ended that portion of her remarks by saying that in academic performance, “poverty does matter” and needs to be dealt with through investments in pre-kindergarten programs and wrap-around services like school meals. 

Teachers, she said, “are the first responders to poverty, we are the first responders to all the social issues in America.”

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