PISA: Responding to the reaction

At a moment when we should be engaged in raucous dialogue about our performance on PISA, let’s actually have the conversation instead of enumerating all the reasons why we shouldn’t be talking about it.

How does one register degrees of disappointment?

As a youngster I recall the varied depths of a sigh emanating from a teacher, coach, or parent at the notion of unmet expectations. Options also included shaking of head, hands upon hips, and furrow of brow to indicate unreached potential.

Last month, I wrapped those all together into a single, awkward body movement. I wish I had been dancing, but I was closer to raging.

When the latest round of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released demonstrating stagnant results for the US and impressive gains for many Asian countries, reactions were predictable in every corner of the opinion-sphere:

Yes, I took a bit of artistic license with some of those headlines, but you get the point.

As Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Andreas Schleicher lamented, “Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping.”

The reactions were predictable, which is precisely what made them so disappointing. At a moment when we should be engaged in raucous dialogue about our performance, let’s actually have the conversation instead of enumerating all the reasons why we shouldn’t be talking about it.

Instead of lamenting such tests as an imprecise measure of learning, we should consider how top performers go far beyond test scores to determine teacher quality and student achievement. In fact, the high-fliers test students less using much higher quality assessments that are far more expensive than the $14 median price of a high-stakes test in the US.

Rather than contorted arguments about our high-achievers being comparable to those in other countries (they’re not), we should explore how top performers achieve such impressive results by ensuring equitable outcomes for all students. Singapore has the second highest rate of income inequality among developed countries (the US is number 3), yet it consistently produces high achievement among students from all demographics.

In lieu of ignoring Finland’s results on account of their socialism/homogeneity/population size (which is equivalent or larger in population than 31 US states), we should analyze the long-term investments Finns make in the teaching profession or the subsidized early childhood opportunities that socialize children while enabling parents to rejoin the workforce.

As an alternative to living on last century’s glory by pointing out that the US has never fared particularly well on international comparisons, we should wake up to the reality of a globalized economy that is decimating the middle class, tearing at our social fabric, and exposing a political system that is unable to respond to complex challenges.

Our middling results may not have been as alarming when a high school diploma equated to a blue collar job, an affordable home, a car in the driveway, and a pension upon retirement. Yet we have not retooled our education system for a century when, to paraphrase Alvin Toffler’s words, the literate will be those who are able to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Perhaps most of all, we should have considered how education cannot afford to be a political football in smaller or developing countries where economic survival depends on educational outcomes.

Singapore has a quarter of the land mass as Rhode Island with a population exceeding that of 29 US states. It has few natural resources and had to import water from Malaysiathe country that expelled Singapore from its union in 1965—until 2002. Without laurels to rest on, Singapore maintains a laser-like focus on the skills that will be necessary for its workforce to thrive ten, twenty, and thirty years in to an unpredictable future. It honors teachers as ‘nation builders’ and affords them the preparation, compensation, and respect commensurate with such high regard.

If you’re unconvinced by Singapore, consider Vietnam’s impressive showing in it’s inaugural PISA appearance: beating out two-thirds of the 65 participating countries.

We may not be celebrating our results, but let’s avoid nuancing them to the point of irrelevance. Our education challenges are not distinct from those encountered globally, but we must be humble enough to recognize this and the urgency with which other countries are responding.