As the Olympic Games roll on I plan to watch my fair share of coverage and hopefully catch a couple Ohio athletes in action. The patriotism and competitive spirit on display these last two weeks has been inspiring.

But as someone who works closely with education policy, I wish we all exhibited as much attentiveness and passion for the performance of our schools and students as we do for our Olympians. I love the Games as much as anyone – and we have much to be proud of when it comes to our athletic accomplishments as a nation – but the reality is our students are missing the mark on key international benchmarks.

Of particular note is the weak performance of U.S. students in reading, science and math on international assessments, which rank us 14th, 17th and 25th, respectively, out of 34 developed nations in these critical subject areas. While Ohio's kids rank in the top 20 percent in these categories nationally, there’s obviously much work ahead in order to improve the competitiveness of our students worldwide.

You might think the results of a single exam just aren’t enough to conclude that our approach to education isn’t working. These international rankings, however, aren’t alone in showing that our system is in need of continued reform. The Council on Foreign Relations, for example, recently issued a report warning that our national security was at risk due to the weakness of our education system. The report cited high dropout rates, low test scores and large gaps in achievement among poor and minority students and their wealthier, white peers.

In Ohio, we’ve taken important steps to improve our schools, including the third grade reading guarantee, a move toward more effective teacher evaluations and the possibility still of new school report cards, all of which are a step in the right direction. But there’s more work to do.

We can start by supporting the groundbreaking education reforms brought about by the Cleveland Plan, which modernizes Cleveland’s school district and helps ensure the best teachers are retained and rewarded for developing high-achieving students. The plan will also require more accountability from the schools in key areas and in return provide more administrative autonomy and the freedom to direct funding in ways that best support student achievement.

Despite that progress, how do we regain our footing as an academic leader in Ohio and across the world? I believe we can start by harnessing the competitive spirit and commitment to excellence on display now around the Olympic Games. That means taking a look at the school policies now in place that are holding students back.

For example, since we know that the work our teachers do in the classroom is the most critical factor impacting how kids learn, policymakers should act to compensate teachers based on student performance – how much their kids are learning – and not simply on the years they’ve been in the system.

And as we work here in Ohio toward a statewide resolution for our school-funding model, we should support critical programs that help students achieve and adopt stringent accountability measures to make sure we’re allocating resources where they’re needed most.

The bottom line is we must seek greater outcomes in our schools by evaluating every policy that holds back or impedes student success. While our international rankings in math, science and reading are troubling, to be sure, what’s worse is the direction in which our kids appear to be headed.

Germany, Hungary and Luxembourg were ranked below the United States in math back in 2000 but outperformed U.S. kids by 2009. In other words, the numbers tell us we continue to lose ground at a critical point in time if we don’t act now.

By working together we can and will reverse this trend, and in the spirit of the Olympics and our dedicated athletes, I can’t think of anything more patriotic.


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