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Learning From Our District's International Benchmarks


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Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks Public Schools in New Hyde Park, N.Y., hosted a mid-July meeting of leaders from New York and Virginia whose districts participated in the OECD Test for Schools.
When I arrived as superintendent of the Herricks Public Schools on Long Island in May 2001, I engaged teachers, administrators, parents and school board members in informal conversations about where they wanted to see the district in three to five years and what a well-educated graduate would look like.

All wanted students who could:

  • remember what they learned in AP Chemistry when they took AP Physics and then apply knowledge from both to the solution of real-world problems;
  • think critically, analyze information and make thoughtful judgments;
  • communicate succinctly and clearly;
  • place knowledge and skills in a global context;
  • understand and respect the perspectives of those of different races, languages, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and genders;
  • and perform sophisticated research.

Three-quarters of the way through the discussions, David Conley, a University of Oregon professor, published his work “Standards for Success,” a groundbreaking research project identifying the knowledge and skills necessary for college readiness. This study clearly delineates the proficiencies, not just courses, students need to succeed in their first year in college. The proficiencies identified by the college professors in Conley’s study dovetail closely with skills and knowledge identified by Herricks teachers, parents and board members.

Sophisticated Questioning

The questions that arose almost immediately were these: How do we know how we are doing compared with others elsewhere in the United States as well as around the world? How do we benchmark ourselves over time so we know whether we are progressing?

Teachers said they taught above what was expected on the New York State Regents exams and Advanced Placement tests and that their own tests and quizzes did a good job of measuring advanced skills. From what I could see, they were correct. The problem was how to compare them with similar assessments in other districts teaching and measuring 21st-century skills and how to benchmark ourselves over time.

This propelled us and three other districts in the New York area to talk our way into the 2006 PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, managed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. We wanted to benchmark ourselves against the rest of the world on a measure that was known both for its reliability and for being the best in the world at measuring the sophisticated skills and knowledge we wanted our students to have.

The experience was even more powerful than we had anticipated. Within minutes of the conclusion of testing (which involved about 75 15-year-old Herricks students who were randomly selected by the testing contractor), teachers jumped into deep discussion about the sophistication of the questions. They were fascinated by the construction of the questions and how they were both elegantly simple and straightforward yet simultaneously devilishly complex, challenging even the most talented students to bring all of their knowledge and creativity to bear.

Teachers reflected on their own assessments and considered how they might be improved. They might have been momentarily humbled, but the experience with PISA was challenging and inspiring.

Equally challenging and inspiring was the way in which the PISA was scored. What we knew was “correct,” “incorrect” and maybe “partly correct.” With PISA, correct is just the start. PISA looks for sophistication and creativity. Students are challenged to think and rewarded if they do so. It was eye-opening and inspiring.

Value Beyond Scores

We publicized the results widely in the community and talked about them extensively with staff. There was exuberance over the results (because they were excellent), but what grew over the months that followed was dialogue inspired by the experience around these practical matters:

How do we change what happens in the classroom to help all students achieve higher levels of creativity and sophistication?

How do we do a better job of teaching students how to apply knowledge?

Are there structural changes in our curriculum that we should consider?

Can PISA help us improve our own in-district assessments?

School-Based PISA

When the concept of a PISA that could be administered to high-school-age students anywhere in the world (with results directly comparable to the regular PISA) was first broached several years ago, we were ecstatic. This would allow us, and anyone with similar inclinations, to do what we had hoped for back in 2006.

While that would have been more than satisfactory in itself, we were stunned to see what the OECD Test for Schools (also referred to as PISA for Schools and the PISA-Based Test for Schools) could provide on student-teacher relations, reading habits, etc. Furthermore, the detailed report now produced for participating schools is 10 times as much as we were able to cobble together after months of research in 2006-07.

PISA has produced extraordinary data on school effectiveness worldwide since 1997. This has been of enormous benefit to policymakers at the national, state and provincial levels. What has been lacking — which now is available through the OECD Test for Schools — is an equally powerful tool enabling local educators — within and across districts, across states and even across countries — to learn from each other’s best practices within a framework of some of the most powerful and reliable data in education today.

Joint Strategizing

In mid-July, administrators from 14 school districts from New York and Virginia, whose three dozen high schools participated in the most recent OECD Test for Schools, gathered on Long Island to share the results, discuss potential insights and brainstorm strategies.

Teams of superintendents, assistant superintendents for instruction, high school and middle school principals, and math, science and English curriculum administrators found the OECD Test for Schools data provided a sophisticated and valuable framework for discussing effective strategies for raising student capacity in the areas we value most highly for our graduates — the ability to think critically, apply knowledge to the solution of problems in sophisticated and creative ways, and communicate clearly.

While individual districts certainly can learn from the OECD test on their own, the power of the data grows exponentially as school districts pool their knowledge and experiences.

The value of the collaboration has prompted the group to continue working as a professional learning community through 2014-15.

Jack Bierwirth is superintendent of Herricks Public Schools in New Hyde Park, N.Y. E-mail: jbierwirth@herricks.org



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