Lessons from PISA for the United States

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US President Obama has launched one of the world’s most ambitious education reform agendas. Under the heading “Race to the Top”, this agenda encourages US states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace: recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals; build data systems that measure student success; and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices and turn around their lowest-performing schools.

But what does the “top” look like internationally? How have the countries at the top managed to achieve sustained high performance or to significantly improve their performance? The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides the world’s most extensive and rigorous set of international surveys assessing the knowledge and skills of secondary school students. This volume combines an analysis of PISA with a description of the policies and practices of those education systems that are close to the top or advancing rapidly, in order to offer insights for policy from their reform trajectories.


Brazil: Encouraging Lessons from a Large Federal System

Brazil has come a long way from its colonial days where education of the local population had not been a priority. This chapter describes how modern Brazil has extended public basic education to over 95% of the population; established assessment systems using an internationally benchmarked index that measures the progress of each school against a baseline; created student-based funding formulas that distribute funds fairly within states; used conditional cash transfers to lift poor families out of poverty through education; and encouraged states and municipalities to take actions to improve education in individual schools. Brazil has enjoyed 15 years of economic and political stability that has enabled it to develop a range of solid industries that now export to the world. Consumption is up among its citizens and this continues to fuel the Brazilian economy. Average PISA scores for Brazil have improved in all subjects measured over the last ten years. While these scores are well below the OECD average and obviously do not place Brazil among the high-performing countries, such gains do suggest that Brazil has put in place federal policies based on a coherent vision that appear to be generating some consistent improvements. The challenge now is to raise the level of education of its citizens high enough to enable them to take commerce and industry to competitive levels in a global marketplace.


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