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Sputnik 3.0? | Ecology of Education

Sputnik 3.0?

The 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data have been released, and the U.S. once again is shown to be lagging behind many other developed countries. Is this, as some have suggested, a Sputnik moment?

It’s worth reflecting on the original Sputnik moment. In October 1957, Russia launched a satellite into space, immediately prompting fears that the U.S. had lost its worldwide dominance in the scientific arena, and raising the specter of a space-based missile attack on the U.S. With the finger firmly pointed at U.S. schools as the culprit, Congress authorized the National Defense Education Act, which provided nearly $1 billion over four years to support improvements in the teaching of science, mathematics and foreign languages in elementary and secondary schools, and to fund low-interest loans for students pursuing higher education. In the Cold War era, it was Us vs. Them, and there was just one “Them”—the Soviets. The threat to national security posed by the space race created what Congress called an “educational emergency.”

Fast-forward to 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education formed by President Ronald Reagan released its heralded report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Because its carefully crafted rhetoric served as a call to action, it’s fair to call A Nation at RiskSputnik 2.0. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” wrote the panel,“we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

A Nation at Risk expressed concern that the U.S. was losing ground to our international competitors in a global economy, and pointed to the poor performance of U.S. students in international comparisons of student achievement. Citing evidence of declines in the content of the curriculum, low expectations for student performance, poor use of time and shortages of qualified teachers drawn from the tops of their graduating classes, the Commission recommended a stronger high school curriculum, higher expectations for students at all levels of study, extended school days and a longer school year, and the upgrading of teacher-preparation programs and teacher compensation.

More than a quarter-century later, the results of the 2009 PISA assessment show that U.S. 15-year-olds are downright average in their reading and science literacy, compared to other developed countries, but well below the pack in mathematics literacy. The sheer volume of countries that are outperforming us is alarming. Seventeen countries boast 15-year-olds who scored better on the PISA math literacy scale than did U.S. students. Six countries outpaced the U.S. in reading literacy, and a dozen scored higher than the U.S. in science literacy.

The most striking news was the emergence of Shanghai, China, a first-time participant in PISA, at the top of the rankings in math and science, suggesting that the U.S. must be further behind the rest of the world than we realized.

But there’s little reason to think that the PISA 2009 report is Sputnik 3.0.  The original Sputnik was a sharp discontinuity in our nation’s understanding of its position as a world leader in education, and A Nation at Risk brought together information on U.S. educational decline both internally over time and in relation to other countries in an artful way. PISA 2009, by contrast, looks an awful lot like PISA 2006, which had already demonstrated that U.S. students were getting their clocks cleaned by students in Finland and any number of other countries.  Nothing in our internal indicator system, such as students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), would have suggested that we had made either substantial progress or experienced a marked decline since then.

So if PISA 2009 simply reaffirms what we already know, what are we to make of the results? We might do well to study the development of the educational systems of those countries whose students perform well on the PISA assessments. But there’s a danger to this:  borrowing policies and practices from other countries often doesn’t end well. Structures, institutions and cultures are all intertwined, and uprooting structures from their moorings in the distinctive institutions and cultures in which they were formulated, and transplanting them into a different institutional or cultural context, frequently does not yield the same benefits observed in the original contexts. Better, then, to think broadly about the principles that seem to support successful schooling in high-performing countries, and how these principles might be applied to the distinctive features of the U.S.

We may not be quite as exceptional as we think we are, but we still need to be thoughtful about how to design systems that produce skilled teachers and uniformly high-quality curricula.

This post was originally published on The Hechinger Report’s A Sociological Eye on Education blog.

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Author:Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and served as a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education.