As 2017 begins and the world moves into the season of resolving to make significant changes large and small, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the outcomes of the latest PISA exam released last December. The test, dubbed the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), is sponsored by the OECD--a collection of the world's developed nations--and is administered to over 500,000 fifteen year-olds in 69 countries once every three years.
The results point to consistent high-achievement in East Asia and outcomes in US primary education that continue to contrast starkly with American dominance of international university rankings. The globe's largest economic power continues to lag behind in math with US students testing, on average, three years behind their peers in Singapore and measurably worse than over thirty other countries. More troubling, around a third of US fifteen-year olds do not meet the minimum standards for mathematical competence.
The disappointing results struck a chord with the U.S. media and prompted a raft of speculation on what the education community could do do improve America’s subpar scores.
Spending per pupil was not the factor that explained the significant disparities between the United States and other nations. Among participating nations, overall spending altered results dramatically in underdeveloped countries but was subject to sharply diminishing returns once a specified baseline had been achieved.
After crunching the data, researchers found that the common factors in high-achieving countries included small class sizes, high enrollment in high-quality preschools, rigorous standards, programs that funneled increased resources to disadvantaged students, and cultures the made an effort increase the pay,prestige, and accountability of teachers.
The free-market cheerleaders over at The Economist are quick to point out that in addition to expanding enrollment numbers for women ( a tactic that has been seen to boost outcomes at every level) the odds of higher-scores were significantly improved when merit, not unions, determined a teacher’s career trajectory.
The New York Times maintains that there is a silver lining in U.S. data. The glaring inequality in America’s education seems to have decreased significantly in recent years, falling more than expected, and allowing the country to inch toward regaining its reputation as 'the land of opportunity. '
The Times observed “One in every three disadvantaged American teenagers beat the odds in science, achieving results in the top quarter of students from similar backgrounds worldwide.This is a major accomplishment, despite America’s lackluster performance over all. 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.”
In England, a math-teacher exchange with Shanghai caused the nation's education officials adopt Shanghai’s mathematics throughout England’s primary schools. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp argues that examples like the England-Shanghai exchange should convince U.S. policymakers to study and embrace the best teaching practices from across the world.
For Kropp, responsibility for the recent trends lies with policymakers' reluctance to look beyond America's borders.
She concludes "For an issue like education—which is of enormous importance to global development—this absence of a global approach for fostering the exchange of ideas and best practices is an anomaly. Other global issues such as public health and the environment have robust channels and funding mechanisms for spreading best practices. In education, innovative ideas and new approaches that could benefit students on the other side of the world rarely see the light of day beyond a particular place.An urgent need exists for structured channels and funding for sharing knowledge and innovation across borders—in other words, for a dynamic network of global organizations that makes it easier for countries to learn from each other.”
If the education community doesn’t use the results of an important exam as a sign that it’s time to buckle-down and make significant changes to our study routine, who will?
This article relied on reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. You can read each article in full here.