How does NCEE define high performance?
We define high-performing education systems as those that achieve excellence, equity, and efficiency: world-class levels of performance, for every student, at a sustainable cost. These three goals reinforce one another. In order to achieve excellent performance, it is necessary for all students to achieve equitably and for money to be spent well. It is not enough to pursue excellence in isolation from equity or efficiency. Policymakers and practitioners must prioritize all three.
NCEE uses performance on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as the measure of whether education systems achieve excellent performance. Every three years, the PISA survey provides comparative data on 15-year-olds’ performance in reading, mathematics, and science. PISA is not tied to a particular curriculum; it tests a student’s ability to apply what they have learned in school to the kinds of problems they will encounter in the workplace and elsewhere outside school.
While no single test is perfect, we believe PISA provides by far the richest, most valid, and most useful comparative data on student performance available. It is more comprehensive than the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and covers more countries and more subjects than the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
In addition to performance, PISA also collects data on students’ wellness and social and emotional learning. This allows us to measure not only whether students have developed a solid foundation of skills and knowledge and the ability to apply them, but also whether they are safe, happy, satisfied with their lives, and content with their school climate. We look closely at the extent to which excellent systems successfully attend to both.
Every child should have the opportunity to achieve at high levels. This is not only a moral imperative but is essential to economic success and societal well-being.
In order to select high-performing systems to benchmark, NCEE uses a set of quantitative measures of equity. These measures include:
- the gap in performance between the highest and lowest achieving students;
- the percentage of students from the lowest quartile of socioeconomic status who perform at the highest levels of achievement;
- the variance in academic performance explained by socioeconomic status;
- the percentage of low-performing students;
- the performance of students who are from diverse racial and/or ethnic backgrounds;
- the performance of students who are not native speakers of the language of instruction;
- the gap in performance by gender; and
- the variation in performance within schools and among schools.
NCEE relies on these quantitative measures in our benchmarking methodology. But we do not mean to imply that they capture all of the complexity associated with equity. Achieving equity is no easy task in a system like the U.S. We have done very little to organize our schools and support our teachers to alleviate the enormous problems concentrated poverty causes for our students: toxic stress and a lack of consistent access to food, shelter, and safety. These problems are compounded by low expectations for poor students, as well as culturally and linguistically diverse students. Further, systemic inequality, inherent bias in curricula, and the enduring racism in this country combined make it enormously difficult for our most disadvantaged students to have a foundation of security and wellbeing that enables them to succeed in school. In order to build and sustain equity, educators will need the skills and understanding needed to recognize the assets all students bring to the classroom as well as the conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by other students.
Ensuring equity is in everyone’s best interest. When society is equitable, democratic institutions are strong and economies flourish. When pervasive inequity festers and class mobility becomes impossible, social, economic, and political systems begin to unravel. Achieving an equitable public-school system is in the best interest of all our students, and indeed, our economy and our entire society.
High-performing education systems find ways to maximize efficiency: to get world-class, equitable achievement for all children at the lowest possible cost. Efficiency does not necessarily mean buying the cheapest goods or paying teachers less. It is about strategic investments over the course of a student’s educational experience that reap long-term benefits. These strategic investments have paid dividends for high performing education systems. While many invest more up front for the youngest children, most spend significantly less than the U.S. does on primary and secondary education. Some spend as much as 50 percent less – while getting results that are far better than ours. These returns on investment are particularly significant given the fiscal constraints schools all over the world currently face.
It turns out that beyond a baseline level of adequate spending, how much you spend matters far less than how you spend it. And the high-performing education systems spend their money very differently than we do. A few examples of inefficiencies in the U.S. will make the point.
Educators in high-performing systems classify about 5 or 6 percent of their students as special education students – all of them with moderate to severe physical or cognitive challenges. In the U.S., about 14 percent of the students are classified as special education students, yet only about 5 to 6 percent of students have moderate to severe challenges. This is not because high-performing education systems don’t provide the support students need. It is because only about half the proportion of students that need that support in the U.S. need it in high-performing systems. And that is because they provide so much more support to very young children before they get to school and to students who start out behind when they get to school. Many fewer students need very expensive special education services over the course of their entire educational career. The students end up achieving at much higher levels and the cost to the system is far less than in the U.S.
Forty-five percent of the young people who go into teaching leave the profession within five years in the U.S. But it takes about 10 years to become fully proficient in any profession. In high-performing education systems, recruits typically remain in the profession two to three times as long as they do in the U.S. Yes, they are paid more on average. But the cost of finding, preparing, and supporting new hires is enormous, and the U.S. ends up with a much less qualified workforce, because so many U.S. teachers have not had a chance to fully develop their expertise.
Greatly raising student achievement while simultaneously closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students are essential goals. But they are no less important than ensuring that the nation can afford the cost of reaching those goals. The key to that goal is not just adding costs and additional programs to the system we already have, but instead redesigning that system to get rid of the enormous waste of resources currently built in. Meeting that goal will require a willingness to challenge norms, creative design thinking, and broad and deep political will. NCEE is ready to help its partners meet that challenge.