Pole vault far above us
RALEIGH — Jokes about “Polacks” have always been tasteless and silly. Based on the latest international test scores, trying to get a laugh today by portraying Polish people as ignorant or dumb is a good way to identify yourself as, well, ignorant or dumb.
According to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Poland ranks in the top-10 countries in the world in performance on rigorous reading and science tests, and is tied with Canada for 11th in math. The United States, by contrast, scores below average in math and close to the international average in science and reading.
As a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article demonstrates, Poland also happens to have one of most dynamic economies in Europe, thanks in part to a policy mix of fiscal restraint, tax cuts, regulatory reform, and infrastructure improvement. In other words, if North Carolinians are looking for models of how to deliver valuable public services at an affordable cost while fostering rapid economic growth, Poland would be a good place to start.
The first thing to understand is that Polish students don’t perform at a far higher level than North Carolina students because Polish taxpayers spend more money on them. In fact, while few countries spend more than the United States does on public education — and even North Carolina, if it were a separate country, would rank in the top 10 in the world in per-pupil expenditure — Poland ranks below the international average in spending on both elementary and secondary schools. Its teachers, while excellent and well-respected professionals in their communities, earn less than North Carolina teachers do on average.
One policy difference between the two is that Polish schools already make use of salary bumps and bonuses to reward higher-performing teachers, a practice that North Carolina is only now beginning to implement. Poland also uses vouchers and student-centered funding to facilitate parental choice of schools, a policy that does not result in the depopulation of public schools in Poland (its share of students attending private schools is actually somewhat lower than North Carolina’s) but instead spurs public schools to compete effectively to keep their students.
Poland’s strategy for educational success is hardly unique. Within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), there are 15 countries whose students outperform ours in at least two of the three PISA exams. In 12 of those 15 developed countries, policymakers use either performance pay for teachers or school choice policies to promote better outcomes. International studies of student achievement confirm that, all other things being equal, merit pay and school choice are associated with stronger academic performance.
Most high-performing countries also maintain high academic standards. It is more difficult to pass end-of-year exams and graduate from high school in Poland than it is in North Carolina. The controversial Common Core State Standards are intended to remedy that particular problem, and in many ways are superior to North Carolina’s previous academic standards. However, Common Core still isn’t as rigorous as the achievement level most Europeans and East Asians demand of their students — and will cost far, far more to implement than is necessary, given what we know about the cost and outcomes of education systems in other countries.
Over the past three years, North Carolina has begun to retool our educational policies to compete. State leaders have devolved fiscal and policy decisions to local districts, eliminated expenditures with no proven relationship to superior performance (such as teacher bonuses to obtain graduate degrees in education), and expanded parental choice of schools. As budgetary pressures recede and North Carolina puts additional dollars into teacher compensation and other educational inputs, there is now a better chance for taxpayer money to be spent effectively on student learning.
If countries as varied in history and resources as Poland, Korea, Japan, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and Estonia can get it right on education, so can North Carolina. And if we don’t, the economic and social consequences will be no laughing matter.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.