PISA and U.S. Academic Performance: The Zombie Myth That Just Won't Die

Over at The Art of Science Learning, Peter Economy writes:

One of my great concerns for this country's future is the underperformance of our youth when it comes to achievement in math and science. In December 2010, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of its 2009 Program for International Assessment (PISA) test, administered to thousands of 15-year-old students in 65 different countries around the world. The results were not good for the United States. In science, the U.S. ranked 23rd with a score of 502, well below Shanghai, China (575), Finland (554), Hong Kong, China (549), Singapore (542), Japan (539), Korea (538), and New Zealand (532), and just one point above the average score on this subject area of 501.

In math, the U.S. fared even worse, ranking 32rd on the PISA test with a score of 487. This score was 10 points below the average score (497) of the 65 participating countries. Number 1 was again Shanghai, China with a score of 600, followed by Singapore (562), Hong Kong, China (555), Korea (546), Taiwan (543), and Finland (541).

These results underscore the fact that we must find new approaches to educating our youth in math and science -- the current approaches are clearly broken.

Regular readers know what's coming next (one has to be persistent about these things). But keep in mind that this is coming from someone whose heart is in the right place. But so many people who discuss education still don't understand what the PISA results mean for the U.S.

As I've described before, the brutal reality is that U.S. schools that contain more than 25% poor children do abysmally--they are literally pulling the scores down:

If we subdivide the U.S. data in a very obvious way, we observe something, well, rather obvious:

But data available now tells us that poverty, as usual, had a huge impact on PISA reading test scores for American students. American students in schools with less than 10% of students on free and reduced lunch averaged 551, higher than the overall average of any OECD country. Those in schools with 10 to 25% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch averaged 527, which was behind only Korea and Finland.

In contrast, American students in schools with 75% of more of children in poverty averaged 446, second to last among the 34 OECD countries.

We might not be living in a nation where one-third of a nation is ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. It's only one in five, give or take. Improvement, I suppose.

I've made this point ad nauseum, but I'll make it again, since education 'reformers', like creationists, are refractory to evidence. Until we get serious about reducing poverty, as well as breaking up large geographic concentrations of poverty, our average test scores will be poor.

More details are described here.

Until we accurately define the educational 'crisis', we will keep devising silly solutions like value added testing.

Should this be called 'edu-woo'?

More like this

Idea from Kyle in South Park "Let's round up all poor people and put them in camps"!

(It would actually be a logical extention of the current trend of the well-to-do settling in gated communities with little contact with commoners, but I doubt the guards would be as nice)

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

"As I've described before, the brutal reality is that U.S. schools that contain more than 25% poor children do abysmally--they are literally pulling the scores down:"

This is important to indicate that teachers are being scapegoated. But it does not really say what is going on. Poverty is an amorphous enemy. Is the key variable the educational level of the parents? (Is there a key variable at all?) Head Start was supposed to address the educational problems of poor children. Has it failed in doing so? (Or has it had limited success?) If it has failed, why has it? Ending poverty is a good in itself. But that seems to be more ambitious than providing poor children better education.

So the US does better than anyone else if you exclude poor American children. What happens if you exclude the poor children in other countries as well? Finland might regain top spot without including the poor Finns... or for all we know Bangladesh might be the best.


I recommend you read earlier posts here on this issue. The comparison was not made by eliminating poverty level students but by comparing US schools with comparable poverty rates to those in Finland etc.

America does not have worse schools than other countries. America has a greater tolerance for cruelty to children than other countries.

RyanG - There really aren't many comparable schools in most of the OECD, and even fewer in the ones which ranked above us. The OECD countries that beat us (possibly excepting Poland) offer better welfare services, such that they don't have areas where 50% of the students can't get decent meals at home or can't afford to seek medical treatment.

By ZachPruckowski (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink

Thank you for posting this. It's very interesting to compare with the March 21 Bob Herbert article "Separate and Unequal". Reading into the comment stream for the Herbert article was an especially bad experience, as so many took Herbert to task for pointing out the roots of our educational problems in poverty and ongoing segregation.