The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) just released the 2015 results of their annual Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures how well children are being educated in more than 70 member states and economies. The information in this report provides one more data set to consider at a moment when responsibility for our nation’s educational strategy is about to change hands.
The PISA data “assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students…have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.” Policymakers can use this data when they evaluate how effective their current policies are. When used as a report card, though, PISA results become just more ammunition in the ongoing battle over the future of our public schools.
Judging from newspaper headlines, the most important finding is that the 2015 PISA scores show American students ranking, as they do on most international tests, closer to the middle than to the top of the pack. According to Education Week’s analysis of PISA 2015, “American students have not improved in either reading or science performance since 2009, and they have declined in math performance during that time, putting the United States slightly below the international average.”
U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. described these results more harshly:
We’re losing ground—a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world. Students in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines; they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.
Buried deeper is some much brighter news. The gap between poor students and rich students is closing. According to Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at OECD, a third of American students in the lowest quarter of income perform in the top quarter of all students worldwide, improving from only 19 percent in 2006. As Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, wrote for the New York Times, “In 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in Americans’ science scores; in 2015, it explained only 11 percent, which is slightly better than average for the developed world. No other country showed as much progress on this metric.”
From a policy and leadership perspective, the ability to compare our national performance with those of 72 other educational systems provides an opportunity to learn from nations that outperform our students. What we see seems to say that it’s our leaders who are failing to the greatest degree: We are not seriously adopting the policies that seem to work most effectively elsewhere. Analysis of the OECD data shows “the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.”
Of these, only “setting rigorous standards” has been part of our national strategy, as reflected in our Common Core Curriculum effort. And since Common Core is a bête noir for both President-elect Trump and Betsy DeVos, his designee for our new Secretary of Education, support for building it out further is unlikely.
Two other findings pose a challenge to our new administration. OECD’s analysis of its data suggests that privatization of schools, strongly supported by Trump and DeVos, may be the exact wrong way to proceed.
Students in private schools score higher in science than students in public schools; but after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools on average across OECD countries and in 22 education systems.
Donald Trump says we already spend more than enough on education, particularly in urban centers where the achievement gap is real. But “PISA data uncover a number of differences between disadvantaged and advantaged schools, both quantitative and qualitative, that collectively paint a picture of the drastically different learning environments in these distinct types of schools.”
It is easier to bemoan failing schools and decry how we are not Number One than to dive into the data and see what we can actually learn. Thirty years of school reform has not taught us this lesson, and it’s doubtful that come January 20th, our educational leaders will be any better students of education.—Martin Levine