Monday, December 09, 2013

What Does The PISA Report Tell Us About US Education?

The results of the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Tests are out again. Brace yourself for another round of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and the rest of the corporate education "reformer" types warning us that our public schools are in free fall, that the Chinese are beating us, and that our only hope of returning to our former greatness is to turn everything over to the private sector.

What they won't tell you is that there has never been a time when the US registered top marks in these international tests. There are no glory days to go back to when it comes to PISA. In fact, during the half century or so during which these tests have been administered, we've always scored about as well as we score today: middle of the pack. And after a decade and more of corporate education reform under the banners of first No Child Left Behind and now Race To The Top, nothing has changed. We are still middle of the pack.

Of course, these kinds of standardized tests really only measure a very narrow range of what can be measured by multiple choice tests, not touching on the bulk of what constitutes a good education; things like critical thinking, motivation, asking good questions, inventiveness, and creativity. Even so, I suppose a case can be made that this isn't good enough, that we ought to perform better, but it doesn't follow that more testing, standardized curricula, larger classes, de-professionalized teachers, longer class days, and school privatization is the cure. In fact, when broken out by state, we find that Florida, a state which has gone whole hog for the corporate reform agenda, sometimes called "The Florida Miracle," performs well below average on the PISA tests. In the meantime, the nations that are "beating" us are taking a decidedly different approach: investing in early childhood education, targeting resources to the kids who need it the most, giving teachers more time to prepare and collaborate, implementing a robust (rather than narrowed) curriculum, using tests to help teachers address student needs instead of as punishments, and treating teachers, community groups, and unions as collaborators not rivals in education.

And, of course, the elephant in the room is the connection between poverty and test scores. When adjusted for the fact that the US has much higher poverty rates than the top performing nations, we find our scores at the very top. If there is any one thing we could do to improve education in America it would be to do something about the fact that something like 23 percent of our children are living in poverty.

Don't buy into the hype about these test scores. Diane Ravitch has written an excellent analysis of the PISA results on her blog, which I highly recommend, and the American Federation of Teachers has produced this outstanding video that quite nicely takes apart the hysterical, manipulative arguments of the corporate reformers.

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