February 9 2010
Vicki E. Alger
A just-released report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) links cognitive skills measured by international assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to economic growth. It finds the failure to make small improvements in workforce skills could cost trillions of dollars. But don't think more time or more money will get the job done. Contrary to President Obama's insistence on more seat time for students, the report concludes that "it is the quality of learning outcomes, not the length of schooling, which makes the difference." (See pp. 6 and 27). It's true.
According to OECD data, 70 percent of the countries that outperformed the U.S. in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds had more schools competing for students. Countries ranging from Japan to Latvia all had more education options than American students. Among the 32 countries participating in the latest OECD assessment, the U.S. led in teaching hours per public school year - 1,080 - compared with an international average of 803. Germany and the Netherlands average around 773 hours, Finland 600, with Korea at roughly 575. Japan trails at 500 teaching hours per school year and routinely cleans our clock on international assessments. Students need quality time, not quantity time. Gimmicks like more seat time don't work-but school choice does. Here's glimpse of what "education as usual" is costing the U.S. (See p. 22). The failure to raise PISA math and science literacy scores among the current generation of students could cost the U.S. anywhere from $40 trillion to more than $100 trillion. (See Figures 1, 4, and 2 on pp. 6-8). The improvements made in other countries (that spend far less than we do) demonstrate effective change is possible. Worse, say study authors, "Concluding that change is ‘too difficult' would imply foregoing enormous gains to the well-being of OECD nations," like the U.S. (See p. 9).