Eighty percent of Americans believe the nation’s schools are in crisis, yet 80 percent of parents think the schools in their own communities are fine. That being the case, during a recent panel at the Harvard Kennedy School, Jon Schnur – executive chairman and co-founder of America Achieves and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools – asked, “how do we establish a sense of urgency?”

Schnur was one of four panelists during the keynote session of the conference, titled “Learning from Improving School Systems at Home and Abroad.” Other panelists included Eric Hanushek, senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; Michael Barber, chief education advisor of Pearson PLC; and Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on Education Policy, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Secretary-General.

Sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), the panelists provided their insights in response to the findings in a new PEPG study on international and U.S. state trends in student achievement growth. The study revealed that the United States is squarely in the middle of a group of 49 nations in 4th and 8th grade test score gains in math, reading, and science over the period 1995-2009. Meanwhile, students in three countries – Latvia, Chile, and Brazil – are improving at a rate of four percent annually, nearly three times the growth rate in the United States (read study).

Barber stressed that political continuity is key to changing the system, but also rare. “It’s a great time in education because we know what to do but the big challenge is in getting it done,” he said.

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