The learning tower of PISA
Every three years, parents around the world get a reality check when they learn how their country's schools stack up against the competition. Are the latest results reason for Americans to panic -- or not all they're cracked up to be?
By Carol Lloyd
It was bad news for the U.S. when. PISA (or the Programme for International Student Assessment), announced the results of its 2009 assessments of 5,000 randomly chosen 15-year-olds in 65 countries. The United States, the superpower still waiting for super-heroic education reform, didn't fare well. We ranked as average in reading and science (similar to countries like France and Hungary) and below average in mathematics (along with Spain, Turkey, and Croatia).
The super-learners included the usual suspects: South Korea and Finland led the pack of sovereign nations, followed by Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan. A couple of standout Chinese cities also topped the list: Newcomer Shanghai pummeled the competition by ranking first in all categories, and Hong Kong, which has participated in the past and always performs well, ranked near the top too.
What do PISA results mean for U.S. parents?
On the most rudimentary level, the news is not comforting. Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that the results are "a wake-up call,” revealing the "brutal truth" that our students are being “out-educated.” Especially in the face of top-performing Shanghai, the test offered more evidence that our supremacy is on the wane while other (not-so-long-ago desperately poor and uneducated) world powers are rising. Let little inconspicuous Finland be first in education, sure. But China? Them’s fightin' words.
Even the blurb announcing the results on PISA's website seemed carefully calibrated in anticipation of a panicked response to Shanghai's performance: "Korea and Finland top OECD’s latest PISA survey of education performance. The next strongest performances were from Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. The municipality of Shanghai also tops the rankings."
"Also tops"? In fact, Shanghai outperformed the second-place countries by 17 points in reading, 38 points in math, and 21 points in science. The inclusion of the 20-million-strong modern metropolis marked the first time that PISA had tried to assess China’s mainland educational system. Of course, extrapolating much about a massive and diverse country from its most modern, well-educated city may not produce the most accurate picture of the nation as a whole. On the other hand, who cares? Could any metropolitan area of our country come close to Shanghai’s performance? Not likely. Even affluent, well-educated Massachusetts, the crown jewel of U.S. education, wouldn't have made it into PISA's top echelon.
Untangling significance from statistics
Yet parsing these results is easier said than done. Dive into the number-crunching debate about what these numbers really mean, and you’re likely to emerge psychically bloodied and thoroughly confused. To misquote w.shakes, that prototypical blogger: "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we attempt to quantify high school academic performance across countries and languages!"