Friday, December 6, 2013

Views on PISA Test Scores and Educational Reform

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results came out last week and prompting the annual reflection about the U.S.' rankings (17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math). The PISA is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to test the math, science, and reading skills of 15 year-olds in 34 countries. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that "the United States’ performance on the 2012 PISA is a picture of educational stagnation. This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world.” Michelle Rhee of Students First responded to the PISA results this week in Time Magazine, saying that we will have "more mediocrity for American education" unless the nation fully embraces educational reform. 

As we read the results and ponder what they mean for American education, we should keep in mind that some countries played by different rules. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow with the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings pointed out that the top scores from China are meaningless because "China does not take the PISA test." The results from China are really from  the country's most elite educational systems, such as Shanghai:

Shanghai has an economically and culturally elite population with systems in place to make sure that students who may perform poorly are not allowed into public schools. Second, the media should not present Shanghai’s scores as if they are indicative of China’s national performance in education. They aren’t, and no one will know how well China can perform on an international test until it participates, as a nation, under the same rules as all other nations.

An unlevel playing field with some countries does not mean that the United States should be complacent--there are countries on the list such as Japan and Estonia that have a diverse group of students doing better than America. In fact, improving education is the only thing that everyone agreed on in this divisive year. But as we look back at the year in education, the education reform movement must also be held accountable for results.

The education reform movement has been embraced by governors, statehouses, and by President Obama's administration. The reform movement has been supplied with a nearly-bottomless supply of billions through educational philanthropy, including the Walton and Gates foundations. Veteran teachers were purged from classrooms in many cities and replaced with cheaper (and often non-union) alternatives. Even though there are some signs that a bit of the shine is wearing off between corporate America and the American Legislative Exchange Council because of the Trayvon Martin case, ALEC wrote many of the hundreds of bills that transformed educational practices across the country, notably in Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas. ALEC has had some good years to get public funds to private and charter schools. In short, the education reform movement had a banner year. So far, however, we have seen little evidence of better educational outcomes for students from the reforms. Voucher program students perform either at or below the standards of students attending public schools. Charter schools have done somewhat better in some areas, but not consistently enough to make them clearly better than public schools. And the privitazation of American education has costs, as Derek has written in his article, Charter Schools, Vouchers, and the Public Good. In the process of "convert[ing] a public good into something private," says Julie Mead, chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, "private schools 'don't have the same responsibility to serve everybody, which diminishes public access, oversight and accountability.' " One area of interest for education reform is the strong results for Massachusetts, which outperformed all but three education systems, with Connecticut close behind. Massachusetts has also been among the states that has largely ignored education reform measures adopted by others in the last decade.

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