The July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine featured a fascinating article on German scientist and education analyst Andreas Schleicher (“The World’s Schoolmaster”).  Schleicher was a leader in creating the PISA assessment, a survey given every three years to a sample of 15-year-olds in every country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). First administered in 2000, every PISA survey tests reading, math, and science, and focuses on how well students can apply classroom knowledge and skills to real life situations. The survey essentially measures whether students are prepared for a 21st century, knowledge-based, global economy.

Perhaps more importantly, the survey allows for comparison between students in different countries. Year after year, the survey has found that the United States has not performed particularly well.

The United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada, a middling performance we’ve repeated every round since. To the astonishment of the Germans, who had believed their system among the best in the world, Germany ranked even lower.

What makes Schleicher unique, and influential in the education reform movement, is his belief that data should be central to informing educational decisions, an important link that Tennessee is now making in areas such as teacher compensation and tenure. Since PISA collects significant amounts of data from students all over the world, Schleicher has been able to reach data-based conclusions about the challenges that countries are facing as well as what steps should be taken to improve their education systems.

And what were Schleicher’s conclusions?

…the best school systems became great after undergoing a series of crucial changes. They made their teacher-training schools much more rigorous and selective; they put developing high-quality principals and teachers above efforts like reducing class size or equipping sports teams; and once they had these well-trained professionals in place, they found ways to hold the teachers accountable for results while allowing creativity in their methods. Notably, in every case, these school systems devoted equal or more resources to the schools with the poorest kids.

As I read through this list, I was proud of the work that Tennessee has embarked on in the past few years to improve public education. We are now holding teachers and administrators accountable for results in the classroom.  Teacher-training programs are receiving much more attention and scrutiny. Quality school leadership is one of SCORE’s 2011 priorities and was part of Governor Haslam’s campaign platform. Now, innovative programs are being implemented, such as the Knoxville Leadership Academy, to better train school leaders. And again, like Schleicher, we are starting to use data to reach important and meaningful conclusions about how to improve.

But Tennessee, like the United States as a whole, also faces challenges that set us apart from PISA leaders. The significant achievement gap in our state means that socioeconomic status disproportionately affects student achievement and growth. Lower-income kids tend to do much worse than higher-income kids. And, as the article points out, “poor kids in Finland and Canada do far better relative to their more privileged peers, despite their disadvantages.”  Shanghai, the highest performing PISA member, rotates the best teachers into the lowest performing schools. In Tennessee, do our lowest performing schools have the same effective teachers that many of our highest performing schools do? I’m guessing probably not.

A similar article in The Atlantic last December (“Your Child Left Behind”) used PISA results to compare the proficiency of students in advanced level math in each state in the U.S. with countries around the world. Tennessee students ranked just behind those in Croatia and just ahead of Bulgaria and Serbia, countries with much less developed economies. Our state has a long way to go to ensure that every student graduates high school prepared for college or the global workforce.

But my belief is that if we let data be our guide–in measuring success, rewarding achievement, and making meaningful decisions about how to improve–Tennessee won’t rank alongside the former Soviet bloc for long.