Building a Nation of Nation Builders

Chief Education Correspondent, NBC News
When the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) announced last December that, compared with the students in 63 other countries, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, there were news stories and statements from lawmakers proclaiming dismay.

But widespread focus on the report was short-lived.

As a new school year begins, I'm not hearing much -- if anything -- outside the education establishment about the report's implications. As I took my son to school on his first day, I wondered why and what could be done to ensure he'll be able to compete economically in 15 or 20 years with children in Shanghai (first in math, reading and science), Korea (second in reading), Lichtenstein (sixth in math) and Canada (eighth in science).

In the U.S. we often tend to focus on education reform as a federal matter. Certainly, Washington can effect change, but true innovations also come from individual schools.

For example, there's San Francisco's Balboa High School. In the 1990s the school shifted the way it viewed the purpose of education, instituting the concept of small learning communities where students were divided into groups that focused on the students as individuals who had a responsibility to the community. Teachers assigned to the communities stuck with students through their years so progress could be easily measured. In other words, there was -- and still is -- a sustained commitment to standards and monitoring achievement. Balboa's system concentrates on the student as a whole person who will have a life after school and must be prepared for it; not only a test-taker to be simply passed along.

As a result, Balboa went from a place where failure was the standard, where students roamed the halls causing trouble, to one where success is the standard and students take pride in choosing the right college.

The entire U.S. system could benefit from a similar change. In the U.S., there's a notion that we can get by on reputation, that we don't have to compete because we've historically had a strong education system in comparison to other countries. In an increasingly globalized society, where students in emerging economies like China and India are chasing what we so haughtily refer to as the "American" Dream, this self-centered idea isn't working. The PISA scores show that.

Like the students and teachers at Balboa, more local, state and federal lawmakers should broaden their approach to education reform. There are two examples from which they can draw.

Finland is currently number three in terms of reading, six for math and two for science. That wasn't always the case, but, as Samuel Abrams noted recently in the New Republic, it became so after a 1971 government commission said Finland must reform its school system to reform its economy. After World War II, a decimated Japan undertook education reform as part of the country's rebuilding process. Japan is now eighth in reading, ninth in math and fifth in science.

The specifics of these two countries' long-term plans differed, but it's clear in those plans they both included a change in the way the country viewed education's end goal. In South Korea, teachers are referred to a "nation builders." In the U.S. we should view our children as "nation builders," the very foundation upon which our economic success depends. This idea may seem offensive, but it's time we see our children as our number one natural resource. After all, we don't only send them to school because education is good in itself; we send them because we want them to prosper, for their own benefit and the country's.

If the U.S. is to remain a great democracy, it can't rest on reputation alone. Democracies thrive only when constituents are engaged and educated. There are plenty of domestic and international examples for policymakers to use as examples for reform.

What we need is the will to change and the patience to see through a sustained program of change.

After all, reforming one school, Balboa, took years. Reforming the Japanese and Finnish systems took much longer. Dramatic change in the U.S. may take decades. Though our attention to last year's PISA scores was short-lived, I'm still optimistic. Radical change has worked elsewhere. If we can develop and maintain focus too, it can happen in the U.S.

Rehema Ellis is NBC's chief education correspondent. She will be moderating a panel on what the U.S. can learn from other countries during the network's upcoming "Education Nation" summit. For more information on "Education Nation," visit