So…what can we DO about those low PISA scores?

American students have been outperformed… again. What should this tell us? And what can YOU do?

Lots of buzz today about the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, which show how 15-year-olds from 65 nations fared on measures of math, reading, and science skills.

A few facts and figures:

  • More than 6,100 American students took the exams, administered last year.
  • Students in Asian nations stood out—as expected on the basis of previous scores—and some, like Shanghai and Singapore, extended their lead from the last assessment in 2009.
  • Students in the United States ranked 36th in math, 20th in reading, and 26th in science.

As New York Times reporter Motoko Rich noted today that “in the midst of increasingly polarized discussions about public education, the scores set off a familiar round of hand-wringing, blaming and credit-taking.”

But her reporting did not take note of commonalities among top-performing nations. Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and Economy, highlighted some of these earlier today:

Top-performing nations insist on solid preparation in the craft of teaching… and do not believe in alternative routes into teaching that skip this step… Shanghai has worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

Let’s look at that last sentence again:

Shanghai has worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

There is no question the United States could do a better job of attracting and preparing teachers. But it’s important to note, as Tucker has, that top-performing nations don’t stop there. They create comprehensive teacher development systems to ensure that children are taught by professionals who are constantly improving and innovating (and have time to do so). These nations aren’t investing in scattershot reforms but in making teaching an attractive, dynamic profession focused on the needs of students. Tucker was quite blunt in his assessment:

The current “education reform agenda” is bankrupt.  There is no evidence that it can succeed.  It is time to embrace a very different education reform agenda, the one that has proven itself in the PISA rankings.

So what do we do?

Just yesterday, CTQ co-released a practical guide to help decisionmakers improve teaching policy in America. In addition to CTQ, co-sponsoring organizations include the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, Opportunity Action, and Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

Grounded in research, the guide highlights specific policies that are already working—in the United States and elsewhere. It advocates for a comprehensive teacher development system that spreads teacher expertise, as well as working conditions necessary for effective teaching. A very different reform agenda, as Tucker would say.

  1. Check it out.
  2. Tweet, like, share away with others who seek the best for kids in your district and state.

P.S. If you have a couple minutes, consider returning here to inspire others with how you are spreading the word.

  • Denise

    G.P.A > Test Scores

    The public (and private) schools that I am seeing are catering to high GPA.  It’s like “grade inflation”, it “trains” the students over time to collect points, and extra credit points, to bring up their GPA.

    I’ve been watching my daughter (HS Soph)  “skate through” public schools, and one very pricy private high school; she gets great grades…. but she doesn’t really learn the subject at all, she seems disinterested.

    There seems to be no focus on development of “intellectual curiosity”, or even repetition in the early stages, which might have build up the amazing basic math skills that other countries instill in their young elementary students.  Our children are eating “cotton candy” instead of “eating thier broccoli”. 

    ???   I fear the SAT scores…..


  • BarnettBerry

    too much interest in test scores

    Denise. There is much about top performing nations – like the relentless pressure for kids to score well on standardized tests (even high quality ones like PISA that measures problem-solving skills and not just facts) — that we should NOT emulate. In fact, top scoring nations like South Korea, Japan, and Shanghai have been trying to jettison (or least downplay) their rigid student tracking systems and cram sessions in order to bring more joy to learning in their public schools. Unfortunately we are doing more tracking (take a look at charter schools and how segregated they have become) and more test prep as those nations, South Korea is cracking down on its hagwons (cram schools) as described by Amanda Ripley in this NY Times Magazine piece.  Finland and Singapore have found some middle ground, investing in teachers while ensuring that students learn and learn to love learning. Less can be more as this CNN clip shows.

  • bradclark

    Multiple Access Points

    I really appreciate that you highlighted the complexity of a successful education system.  It is not only that teacher prep needs to be more selective, more authentic to the needs of the local communities they serve, reflect the most current research, etc. (A spinning top that is clearly spinning will eventually run out of momentum.)  

    A successful education system must facilitate and sustain the constant growth of its teachers. The top must be given a push from time to time..Teachers need to be given objective feedback that is evidence based that they can in turn use to guide and manage their own individual professional development.   

    As we develop measures that truly allow teachers to truly self-reflect on their own effectiveness and as the system incentivizes teachers to lead the teacher effectiveness movement, our mastery of craft will increase holistically, with the outcome naturally being higher student achievement and growth.

  • Cathleen Lin

    Low PISA Scores

    Thank you for sharing the different facets of success in learning. Teaching at an international school in Taiwan, I witness the ‘products’ of the local school system with students who would go to cram schools until 7 or 8 P.M. I’m hoping that the pendulum can be shifted to the middle where critical thinking is encouraged.