Duncan Calls for Higher Standards and Expectations Following PISA Results

Duncan and Students at PISA Release

Secretary Arne Duncan talks with students during today’s event announcing the 2012 PISA results.

Do schools in the United States ask enough of students?

Based on the results of a major new international report, and conversations surrounding its release today, the answer is no.

Every three years, hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds in more than 65 global economies take the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results provide a snapshot of how students in the U.S. compare to students around the globe. Earlier today, the 2012 PISA results were announced and Secretary Arne Duncan was on hand with Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Secretary-General Angel Gurria to discuss the results and what it means for education in America.

Duncan explained that results for the U.S. are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.” However, this is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t made any progress since the 2009 PISA. In the last three years, 700,000 fewer students are in high school dropout factories, college enrollment is up—especially among Hispanics—and the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed us that reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders are up nationally to new highs.

Duncan also talked with a group of foreign exchange students from several countries, in a conversation moderated by author Amanda Ripley. The students said that schools in the United States did not expect as much of students as those in their home countries.

In his remarks, Duncan reminded those at today’s release that the America’s stagnation evident in the PISA results “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”

The PISA results give evidence of America’s troubling achievement gaps, and Duncan acknowledged that we must do better on closing what he calls the “opportunity gap.” “The only way to increase social mobility and strengthen the middle class is through high-quality education,” he said.

But today’s results also show that while white 15-year-olds in the U.S. do better on average than students of color, our white students are still lagging behind the world’s top performers.

So the real educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods. It’s about many kids in many neighborhoods. The PISA results underscore that educational shortcomings in the U.S. are not just the problems of other people’s children.

To correct this, Duncan said that we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.

Read the full version of Secretary Duncan’s remarks, learn more about the PISA results, and watch the video below.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education


  1. As a high school teacher, I find myself, and my students, frustrated with the push for every high school student to move directly to a four year college. Many of our students do not have the skills to do so; rather, they need remedial courses in English/Language Arts and mathematics to become prepared for that level of coursework.

    Why are our students not prepared?

    This is simple… We push too many concepts in too short a time period without letting any of it sink in. For example, when middle school math students enter our school as ninth graders, they take Algebra I. A two week review of eighth grade concepts is completed. Should students struggle in that area, it doesn’t change the face of the coursework because the teacher must keep moving in order to cover all of the coursework required on the state exam.


    Yes. If a student struggles solving one and two step equations, how will they ever solve a quadratic function, or understand the basis for simplifying a polynomial with positive and negative exponents? The fact is that they won’t. Then, the next year (or the next semester) they will be placed in the course again. The teacher knows that with a period of intensive remediation the student would likely be successful, yet current high school design precludes intensive remediation over time. The only available remedy is for teachers to tutor on their own time at no charge on a consistent basis, or for parents to pay out of pocket for a tutor on their own. Many teachers work two (or more) jobs, or coach to make ends meet, so tutoring every day is almost impossible. And few parents can afford the expense of outside tutors.

    So these students sit in classes of 30 or more, unable to complete the work and they tend to become behavior problems. And frustrations build. Why should the students continue to attempt work that they do not have foundational skills to complete when the teachers, the school, and their parents are aware of this?

    Because we don’t have the money in our school’s budgets to provide remediation courses. Crazy, isn’t it? We know what is wrong, but we do little to nothing to fix it. Why?

    Because teachers are rarely, if ever, asked what is wrong with the system. It is “easier” to suspend the student for misbehavior than to provide an appropriate education for them. I am not suggesting a high school classroom of 10 students. This issue is much more widespread than that. We would likely fill several of these classes. Continue on the current path and students become bored while suspended and get into even more trouble, that they would not have been involved in if they were sitting in a class that taught them what they needed to know.

    The other end of the spectrum? Our advanced and gifted students receive almost no challenge other than placement in Honors and AP courses. Doesn’t sound like a bad situation to many; however, many of these courses are simply the college prep equivalent with more assignments added in. The content is not any deeper or more challenging… simply more work.

    So how will our kids become great, analytic thinkers? Some will because they happen to get a teacher that practically lives at school and does not need to work two jobs to do so. Others will have family support that encourages them and provides extracurricular experiences that embeds cultural and educational thought processes.

    The rest of our kids? I am praying for them…

  2. Does anyone out there think that it’s the architecture of our public school systems that might be the problem? This top down, trickle down, bureaucratic structure that might be a major obstacle for really making educational progress for all of our children. The public education system is vital for democracy in this nation so dismantling it in favor of a voucher system would be a catastrophic mistake not to mention that we should really look carefully at the layers operating here. Anyway…
    National Standards (common core) are a way of establishing a baseline across this nation. A baseline that is just formulating. It is not the finish line it is only the beginning. Currently state-by-state the results of testing are all over the board and it will take some time to pull this together for a national average. Keep asking the question: What are we doing and why are we doing it. If the answer is fear based then it’s inappropriate.
    Is it ok to teach to the test? I’m not so sure that’s all wrong if the objective is that we are creating a foundational level to build onto with each child. Can you imagine the difficulty of not understanding the basics of reading, writing, & math? That took practice and effort. I imagine a time when we will be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of every child and build forward with an individualized educational plan for each child but we will need know their specific baseline to build those foundations forward. There needs to be testing but it needs to be smart testing not the exhausting climate we are experiencing now. With the technology we have today there is no reason why there can’t be a combination of standardized testing AND individualized instruction geared to the child’s unique talents, strengths and weaknesses reflected in personal portfolios.
    Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and being made the scapegoat for everything wrong in education. When the architecture of a school system follows a top-down, corporate model and politics supersedes the pedagogy of teaching we’ve got a bigger problem to deal with. Dare to dream. Your teachers need time to take care of business. Most spend at least 10-12 hours a day and weekends servicing children. Just a side note, your teachers never get a paid vacation, their pay is spread over a year and they might get 4 of the major holidays paid but when they are off they are not paid and are spending a good part of that time unpaid grading and preparing lessons. Still they do the job because it has purpose. What they need is time on the job to do these things.
    Specific to elementary level, what if the architecture was changed to reflect a combination of standard focused education with vouchers. Parents and Teachers working together. Spend 4/5 hours with focused education at school followed by a child centered design based on teacher input and parent choice using vouchers. An individual educational design offering support, extensions, exploration of interests using community resources (ymca, tutoring, athletics, music, language, math clubs. etc.). Teachers could spend the next 4 hours taking care of business, parents would have choice and a safe place with an extended school day, and the students might get a much richer educational experience.

  3. I’m glad to see that in the past few days this is a conversation that is happening around the country, with some backlash aimed at the news for spouting things without really thinking them through. I still am not sure why we are comparing ourselves to Finland, which has one of the smallest percentages of poverty in Europe. And Singapore is such a heavily tracked country, and I can’t find anything that enables me to know just who gets tested on these tests. I suspect that students put into vocational tracks are not tested. That would make a huge difference, wouldn’t it? And all students in China are not tested, we know this. Shanghai sends the results of testing in just their elite schools. If we took Stuyvesant and Science and Boston Latin students and tested them and put their results against the Shanghai students, we’d by delighted, I’m sure.

    I think that the most critical question is how do we rate countries relative to their willingness and capacity to offer educational opportunity to all children…ALL?

    No where else in the world is there a country that has anything like our size and our demographic diversity. I think that we do the most extraordinary work in educating all children and I think we should be making this more public. I can’t do it from my perch, but Arne Duncan, you can!

    We have much greater challenges in the US than in other countries do.

    And why is it that so many of these countries that score highly, are also looking to us for help and guidance. Ironically, yesterday I was forwarded an article from a Chinese colleague (in southern China) about a groundswell movement dedicated to lessening homework for Chinese students because of issues that have arisen with the quantity and quality of homework.

    And, then, of course, I am always struck with why students in Asia want nothing more than to come to the US for their higher education?

    Our educational system provides something so special that is admired by the whole world. It may not be seen in raw numbers and scores but we have to look at what else the scores aren’t telling us—We are a country that provides opportunity and educational energy that is truly excellent. Can we make it better, yes. But the outcry of “shame on you US educators” this week has been unwarranted and undeserved.

  4. “Math tutor” was one of my jobs in the 70’s, I continued contact with kids in a family practice over 27 years, and I did some tutoring again in 2010. Bifurcated is the description of our pupils in math. A third are competent early in arithmetic, take algebra during middle school, are stars, and get most of the teachers’ attention/positive reinforcement. The rest enter high school with an unclear idea of 7X8 or 1/2 + 1/3. Ask some high school students to add 1/2 + 1/2, 1/2+ 1/4, 1/2+1/3 and some simple multiplication – you can identify the kids who are performing too slowly to keep up in 9th grade algebra. We can not write off 2/3 of our population as the “STEM” curriculum is necessary for more than just the “stars.” This is not only a poverty issue as most of the kids I tutored were the children of physicians and other professionals. If “fixed” before failing, these kids do a good job in HS and college.

    • I’m not convinced that the current expectations for elementary-schoolers, in which those foundations are laid, are going to make the problem any better. And since there has been ZERO research before launch, NOBODY knows. NOBODY. Bill Gates even said that we won’t know for a decade whether this stuff works (although why the hell we’re listening to HIM and not actual math teachers is beyond me). http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/09/27/bill-gates-it-would-be-great-if-our-education-stuff-worked-but/

      What are we going to do if things get WORSE? If CCSS turns out to be an utter math disaster, if the current elementary schoolers getting their math this way get to middle and high school and are STILL unclear on what to do with 1/2+1/3….then we will have wasted how many years and how many billions of dollars and I don’t know if we will ever be able to get those kids back. We certainly won’t get those years back. 🙁

  5. One more note. Teachers are not to blame for the ills of society, and no matter how you try to sugar coat it, those ills play a huge factor in test results.

    • How can you say that the teachers are not to blame for the ills of society? Our Teachers no longer care about educating our students. Our Teachers know longer care what the students do and do not understand. I went to a school that had/has three high school drop-outs, only one of which has a GED. Our Teachers do not encourage students to come to class, most just want a paycheck and want to be on their merry little ways. Our future starts with our children and if we cannot trust our teachers to educate them, more than youtube or google, then how do we expect to fix any of our problems? The teachers in this country do not let students express their creativity or involve themselves in the work, to a point they can understand it. They do not allow our children to debate, speak to other students or delegate responses with the classroom. You’re taught all through Grade school that the teacher is right and you are wrong and there is only one way to do things. When I entered my second year in college, I was told by my professor, that everything they teach students through grade school is wrong. They teach you the minimum essentials, the basics, not caring whether or not you learn, only if you pass so the school looks good. You can blame the No child left behind act for the abysmal downfall of our countries education system around the world. The fact that students can no longer “learn” at their own pace or understand the material which is presented to them, is what has caused this major, very major issue in America’s schools. It’s that simple.

    • Kyle, on one hand you blame the teachers for the ills of society and then you go and say, “You can blame the No child left behind act for the abysmal downfall of our countries education system around the world.” Well – none of the teachers I know were happy with NCLB. I know I wasn’t when I still taught public school.

      You rightfully put the blame on policymakers with your second statement quoted above. The teachers DID NOT create NCLB, any more than they created Race to the Top (or had a real hand in the Common Core State Standards, for that matter, no matter what ED here tells you!).

  6. You, Arnie Duncan and your cronies such as Michelle Rhee are what is ruining public education in America, not unqualified or ineffective teachers. That is what you want isn’t it, so that your business partners can swoop in and dismantle public education, and then privatize schools for profit. Didn’t you learn anything from the PISA results? All of the top countries have a public education system that looks like anything but our system. They don’t put an overemphasis on standardized tests and they don’t tie teacher evaluations to a test. We are raising a nation of test takers. My students spend at least one full nine weeks testing in one form or another, and at the same time, American politicans have taken all of the creativity such as music, drama, and art out of public education.

  7. Look at the problems poor and minority students can’t do on NAEP, OECD PIAAC, and PISA. Workers in many good 21 Century jobs will have to do problems like these. Then look at the Common Core standards. Very few jobs will require them. The CCSS will make things worse.

  8. So….. teachers, administrators, and schools are judged by test scores. They are hired and fired, or kept open or closed in the case of schools. Scores go up, or go up ENOUGH, and teachers and principals may stay and schools may remain open; test scores fail to go up as much as hoped (or Heaven forbid, go DOWN!), and schools are closed and staff are out on their backsides – all because of dropping test scores.

    If our PISA test scores have gone DOWN, even after No Child Left Behind (which was really Lots Of Children Falling Through The Cracks, and we all know it!), and especially after Race To the Top (wasn’t that supposed to be BETTER than NCLB?!?), then perhaps it is time for our esteemed Secretary of Education to recuse himself from his current position. If it’s good for all the geese, surely it’s good enough for the Gander?

    Further food for thought:
    If the definition of “insanity” is “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results,” how can rational thinking academics possibly think that doubling down on policies that have been failing our children, teachers, communities, and country for over a decade now will IMPROVE the situation? This is called, in police investigations, “a clue.” Get one.

    I think it’s past time for the Educational Reformers to think with their brains….and stop trying to overcompensate for the results of poverty on the backs of our nation’s children.

  9. I am so tired of law makers blaming education problems on teachers. The reason that our students are behind other countries is due to many issues, none of which deal with the teachers. Also, why are politicians and lawmakers the ones deciding what to do in education. I have NEVER once seen either profession come into the classroom and try to teach. None of you know what goes into education. The 80 hours a week I spend to prepare for my students while making roughly $800/wk. I could work at Verizon Wireless selling cell phones and make more money. Let alone the fact that I still have over $70,000 in college debt and have been paying on it for 11 years. Why aren’t teachers consulted before making decisions based on what is their area of expertise? Would you ask a plumber to diagnose your illness? I don’t think so. Yet every year, people that have no insight into education and are so removed from the field come up with ideas that just ruin education even further. The sad part is, I love my job and I put all I have into it. I am a great teacher, but all that you say and put on education doesn’t make you get rid of the bad teachers, it makes you lose the good ones too. I am sickened to be a teacher in this country because of the way that the politicians belittle teachers.

    Reasons that our education system is behind those in the world:
    1. All we do is test students constantly. There is no time to teach students because we are required to give them so many tests. When all you are doing is testing, there is no time for students to enjoy learning and be self motivated for it.

    2. There is little support at home. If you look at the students in other countries, I guarantee when there are behavior issues at school, the parents support the teachers and do everything in their power to correct the behavior. In America, teachers walk on eggshells because, heaven forbid, a student be responsible for their own actions.

    3. Other countries value education and respect the people that work in the field. In America, we say that those that can’t do…teach. We do not treat teachers as respected professionals, but as someone that is beneath every other profession. We evaluate them based on testing scores, which is not a holistic look at what they do. If we evaluated lawmakers and politicians based on the economy, you would owe the country money, as opposed to collecting a paycheck.

    4. Other countries gear their education based upon the students’ needs. In America, we can’t hold a student back for fear that they will drop out. We try to fit all kids into a grade based on their age, rather than their ability. And we can’t let students find out what their ability is because it might hurt their self esteem, so instead we push them forward when they are incapable of doing the work.

    I could go on, but I think I have made my point. Our education system is not at fault, our society is at fault on this one. You can make all the changes you want to the schools, but until we get educational professional a voice to help make the decisions and change the way our society acts, we will always have the same results.

  10. Note that the countries that scored highest don’t push all kids through an academic program. They channel students into either academic or vocational programs based on individual strengths. The US assumes that all students should go to college, so potentially great mechanics and electricians and artists end up as failed scholars. No wonder that the kids who took the test in those countries scored better than our ‘not left behind’ kids.

  11. One can only wish there were support in the department for teachers raising standards by redesigning high schools; or, more accurately put, by designing an alternative to that underperforming model of upper secondary education that Americans designate as “high school”. The alternative my colleagues and I have developed is a lyceum, the kind of school students in Shanghai and elsewhere in east Asia study so hard to enter. As is common throughout east Asia as well as in Switzerland and Nordic Europe, this means that, after nine years of high quality comprehensive education, upper secondary offers a dual system, with some students pursuing an express track into higher education while others pursue attractive alternatives that enable a faster, more efficient route into employment, along with the tax generation and the dignity that result from satisfying work.

  12. The U.S. is now 26th in math and 21st in science so those who pour huge amounts of money into the system and produce failing results want to turn up the temperature on the students.
    With standardized testing, Praxis testing, emphasis on sports and poor administrators, we eliminate the possibility of good teachers with unorthodox methods arriving in the classroom. Often the teachers who relate with students and really help them learn are not stereotypical or politically correct teachers.
    Some of the ones that used to make the biggest difference were “rough around the edges,” never mastered modern techno-tools and often had no administrative skills. Some had come through the “school of hard knocks” and knew the best teaching methods simply because they had trouble learning themselves. They really “got it.”
    This mindset is missing from today’s classrooms. As a result, only a few students score high on departmental exams and many can’t even relate with what is happening around them. So they simply “tune out the world.”

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