What the International PISA Scores Really Mean

Today with much hoopla and angst, the international PISA scores were released.

You will notice, if you read Lindsey Layton’s article in the Washington Post, that Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who had declared today “PISA Day,” used the test-score release as an occasion to push for widespread support for the new Common Core Standards that his No Child Left Behind waivers applications are strongly recommending that states adopt.  The Common Core has become controversial because of the rush to institute the accompanying curriculum which has not been adequately piloted and because of worries about how schools can possibly implement the standardized tests that accompany the Common Core, tests that must be administered on-line.

What can we conclude from the performance of U.S. 15-year-olds on PISA?  First the scores remained flat; they did not fall.

Second, now that a generation of students have been educated under our national testing law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB ), we can agree with Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, who sensibly points out that NCLB has failed to increase overall achievement and close achievement gaps.  Weingarten is quoted in the Washington Post: “While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools—has failed to improve the quality of American public education.”

As Americans, we tend to respond instinctively to fear-mongering when we lose a competition. Sports metaphors dominate our news, and we hate being losers.  The worry being promoted about PISA scores is that we’ll lose out in the world economy if our children aren’t able to win the PISA competition.  Of course we need to improve our public schools, particularly the schools serving children educated in communities where poverty is concentrated, but we need to do this for moral and civic reasons, not because of international competitions.  The American Federation of Teachers released a first-rate little youtube video that clearly explains the reasons why many of our adolescents do not score well on PISA.  The video also suggests several important steps we can take to increase opportunity.

This is an old, old subject.  Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond addressed it directly in 2010 in her nearly 350 page book, The Flat World and Education.  Darling-Hammond exhaustively demonstrates that our education crisis is not a national crisis affecting all 50 million students in America’s public schools. It is instead a problem of equity.  Our society generously funds schools for wealthy children in exclusive suburbs, and the scores of those children demonstrate their parents’ as well as our collective investment.  However, we fail to invest in the things that matter in the schools that serve our poorest children.  One cause of this inequality is our persistent reliance on local property taxes to fund public education.  Here is exactly how Darling -Hammond describes the problem in The Flat World and Education:

“International studies continue to confirm that the U.S. educational system is also one of the most unequal in terms of inputs.  In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states.  These disparities reinforce the wide inequalities in income among families, with the greatest resources being spent on children from the wealthiest communities and the fewest on the children of the poor, especially in high-minority communities.  This creates huge inequalities in educational outcomes that ultimately weaken the very fabric of our nation.” (p. 12)

“These disparities have come to appear inevitable in the United States; however they are not the norm in developed nations around the world, which fund their educational systems centrally and equally, with additional resources often going to the schools where students’ needs are greatest.” (p. 8)

“One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

I hope we value our children in America for more than their mere potential to boost U.S. global economic competitiveness.  Every child should have an opportunity to fulfill her or his promise.  Clearly, as indicated by the PISA scores of our wealthiest children, we do know how to educate children in America.  What our society lacks, however, is the political will to do what we know how to do.  How have we lost sight of our moral and civic responsibility to educate all our children?  Maybe getting over our anxiety attack about U.S. global competitiveness would let us concentrate on the job at hand.


One thought on “What the International PISA Scores Really Mean

  1. Pingback: What the International PISA Scores Really Mean | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

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