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Yes, we can beat the kids from Singapore


• Marilyn Dwyer

You may have heard the same news flashes.

Our students are falling behind their international peers in reading, math and science – behind the kids from Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and even Vietnam.

On the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)[i], an international assessment administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), American students ranked 27th in math placing us below average. In reading, we rank 17th or “not statistically different from average” and 21st in science.

So why does this concern me? I am studying international relations at Florida State University and will enter the job market in five months. Well aware of the challenges of globalization, I need to be confident that my generation can compete.

However, America shouldn’t feel hopeless or incapable—we aren’t. We not only can meet the competition, we can beat it.

Proof comes from the BASIS Charter Schools—a group operating in Arizona, Texas, and Washington, DC.

BASIS uses strategies employed by top PISA countries. It focuses on strong teachers with in-depth content knowledge. Its curriculum is designed to challenge students from primary school through graduation. A unique “Connections” course promotes critical thinking and problem solving by allowing students to apply knowledge acquired in other classes.

BASIS schools stress core principles based on professionalism and “pushing the boundaries.” And they’re seeing positive results.

In 2012, we had 105 U.S. schools participating in a pilot program based on PISA called the OECD Test for Schools. The top schools outperformed even those in world-leading Shanghai. They scored in the top one percent in reading and math and the top five percent in science.

One was an ethnically diverse BASIS school in Arizona: BASIS Tucson North. It also is ranked by the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report as one of the top five schools in the country.

I believe this validates the move many states are making toward the Common Core State Standards, which expect more of students at a younger age. They are expected to think critically and answer the why and the how, rather than just reproducing work from memory.

For those who argue that the standards are too tough, the BASIS Charter Schools set their goals even higher. Common Core should represent the floor in our schools, not the ceiling.

Despite our overall lackluster results on the 2012 PISA , there were areas of encouragement. American students scored slightly above average in creative problem solving (something the Common Core State Standards will do nothing but improve). Their strongest performance was on interactive tests where students must uncover information they need to solve the problem themselves. Almost 12 percent of American students on this assessment were “top performers,” compared to the OECD average of 11 percent.

This, to me, shows that US students are capable of not just rising above the “average,” but, with an education system that pushes students to reach their full potential, becoming number one in the world. And we need to, so my generation and future generations can enter into the job market with the knowledge that we can compete with the best students from any country.


[i] National Center for Education Statistics- 2012 PISA Results: http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2012/pisa2012highlights_1.asp


About the author


Marilyn Dwyer

marilyn@excelined.org