In education, it sometimes takes courage to do what ought to be common sense.
That's a key lesson from several recent national and international assessments of U.S. education. These include the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation's report card; a new version of the NAEP focused on large, urban districts; and the international rankings in the tri-annual PISA test.
Collectively, these assessments demonstrate extraordinary progress in the places where leaders have worked hardest and most consistently to bring change — but also a national failure to make nearly enough progress to keep up with our competitors.
Nationwide, students made modest progress in reading and math in 2013, with achievement edging up to record highs for fourth- and eighth-graders, the NAEP found.
Nearly every state has adopted higher academic standards, and most states have instituted new systems of teacher support and evaluation. It's a testament to hardworking educators that they are implementing these changes and raising student performance at the same time.
But as the international PISA results demonstrate, our progress isn't enough. Other countries are leapfrogging us at a time when education is vital to economic health in a global competition for jobs and innovation. Among the 65 countries and education systems that participate in PISA, the United States was surpassed by 27 in math and 14 in reading. That's unacceptable.
We can learn, however, from some of the standouts. In contrast to a national picture of gradual progress, Tennessee and the District of Columbia reported striking jumps — in both math and reading achievement and in both grades examined, fourth and eighth.
We don't know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the District of Columbia in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but politically hard, steps to help students. Both are places where vulnerable students predominate; 73 percent of D.C. students and 55 percent of Tennessee students are sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price meals.
There are important lessons here. What these two places also had in common was a succession of leaders who told educators, parents and the public the truth about educational underperformance and who worked closely with educators to bring about real changes. They pushed hard to raise expectations for students, even though a lower bar would have made everyone look better. And they remained committed to doing the right thing for children, even when it meant crossing partisan lines or challenging ideological orthodoxy.
To meet those higher standards, these leaders invested in strengthening the quality of classroom instruction and revamping systems for teacher support and evaluation. They ensured that teachers could use good data from multiple sources to identify learning gaps and improve instruction. They also sought ongoing feedback from educators and others.
These concepts — developing and supporting the people who do the most important work, using data to inform improvement — are what strong organizations do.
Yet these common-sense steps took uncommon courage. Tennessee had previously set one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency in reading and math. The resulting proficiency rates — 91 percent in math and 92 percent in reading — were a lie. By raising standards, Tennessee's leaders forced the public, parents and politicians to confront brutal facts.
When Tennessee raised its standards in 2010, the proportion of students rated proficient dropped to 34 percent in math and 45 percent in reading. But in a bipartisan act of courage, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stayed true to the reforms begun under Democrat Phil Bredesen. They refused to dumb down standards to try to make Tennessee students look better.
Were students actually doing worse? No. For the first time, the state was telling the truth.
Just as important, leaders in the District of Columbia and Tennessee worked with educators to transform industrial-era systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals that had little or no link to teachers' impact on student learning. That meant continuing the work of political predecessors, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did in the District of Columbia.
Building better systems that take account of educators' impact on learning is complex and controversial work. Yet in Tennessee and the District of Columbia, leaders solicited input from their critics, stayed committed but flexible and delivered systems that help both successful and struggling teachers.
I'm cautious about drawing big conclusions from a two-year trend, and it's important to track a variety of educational outcomes, such as high school graduation and college enrollment rates.
Even so, the experiences of Tennessee and D.C. suggest that children win when leaders work closely with educators to do several vital things right, at the same time, and don't give up when the going gets tough.
As Henderson said: “When you concentrate on teacher quality, you get results. When you radically increase the level of academic rigor, you get results.”
To be clear, no one in Tennessee or the District of Columbia is declaring victory. Students in both places have a lot further to go to close achievement gaps and even to reach the level of top-performing states. But their progress shouldn't be treated as mysterious or miraculous.
The changes America's children need to get a better education require political courage and hard work. But in many cases the steps are surprisingly straightforward — and can be taken anywhere.
Arne Duncan is U.S. education secretary.