A visit to Nan Chiau Primary School in Singapore finds fourth and fifth graders eagerly displaying the science projects they have designed and conducted in an "experience, investigate, and create" cycle that is repeated throughout the year. Students study plants, animals, and insects in the school's eco-garden; they run their own recycling centre; they write and edit scripts for the Internet radio program they produce; and they use handheld computers to play games and create mathematical models. Teachers, meanwhile, engage in research sponsored by the government to evaluate and continually improve their teaching.
Contrast the picture of this typical school in Singapore with the description of a California school, from a lawsuit filed recently on behalf of low-income students of colour in schools like it throughout the state:
At Luther Burbank, students cannot take textbooks home for homework in any core subject because their teachers have enough textbooks for use in class only… One dead rodent has remained, decomposing, in a corner in the gymnasium since the beginning of the school year.... The school library is rarely open, has no librarian…the latest version of the encyclopedia in the library was published in approximately 1988.... Classrooms do not have computers.... The school no longer offers any art classes.... Eleven of the 35 teachers at Luther Burbank have not yet obtained full, non-emergency teaching credentials, and 17 of the 35 teachers only began teaching at Luther Burbank this school year.
Certainly not all schools in the United States look like this, but what distinguishes high-achieving nations like Singapore from the United States is that the high quality of education in Singapore is replicated systemically throughout the entire nation. And Singapore is not alone. Canada and many nations in Asia and Europe are pouring resources into forward-looking systems that educate all their citizens to much higher levels—and the gap between the United States and these high-achieving nations is growing.
Inequality has an enormous influence on U.S. performance, far more than most nations. The impact of socio-economic factors on variance in U.S. student performance in Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 results is 16.8%—almost double of that in Canada. In Canada, the majority of students attend “mixed” schools, rather than highly advantaged or disadvantaged, and there is greater equity of access to resources within and across schools.
For a brief period in the mid-1970s, when the United States worked to reduce poverty, desegregate schools, and enhance funding in poor districts, the United States saw achievement gaps close substantially. To regain lost ground, the United States must make strong investments in children's welfare—adequate healthcare, housing and food security -- so that children can come to school each day ready to learn, and level the playing field in schools.
In education, the United States must roll back the theory of reform developed during the Regan years that focused on outcomes rather than inputs – that is, high-stakes testing without investing. Instead, investments must be made in high-quality preschool to close achievement gaps that already exist when children enter kindergarten; equitably funded schools that provide quality educators and learning materials; a system that ensures that teachers and leaders in every community are extremely well prepared and are supported to be effective on the job; standards, curricula, and assessments focused on 21st century learning goals; and schools organized for in-depth student and teacher learning and equipped to address children's social needs.
Achieving these conditions will require as much federal attention to opportunity-to-learn standards as to assessments of academic progress, and greater equalization of federal funding across states. It will require incentives for states to provide comparable funding to students across districts. Finally, an equitable and high-achieving system will need to address the supply of well-prepared educators—the most fundamental of all resources—by building an infrastructure that ensures high-quality preparation for all educators and ensures that well-trained teachers are available to all students in all communities.