Few things generate more debate and controversy than attempts to measure educational achievement. It should come as no surprise that the release this week of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment results (or PISA) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was immediately parsed, diced and manipulated to fit the agendas of dozens of interest groups and organizations.
The reason is that students in the United States once again scored poorly against their peers in other nations of the world. U.S. results, in fact, haven’t budged on these tests in a decade, despite a patchwork quilt of reform efforts from coast to coast.
It would be wrong to overreact to these results, but it would be worse to cast them aside as meaningless. They offer a candid look at public education that doesn’t fit neatly into any one interest group’s agenda. Everyone can find a reason to feel uncomfortable.
For example, the results clearly indicate that per pupil expenditures do not translate into better results. Neither does class size. Those are two elements at the core of virtually every legislative session in which teacher unions argue for more funding. Only four nations spend more per student than the United States, and yet U.S. students performed roughly on the same level as those in the Slovak Republic, which spends about half as much.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, however, the results show that an increase in competition between public and private schools, and the addition of public charter schools have done little so far to improve scores over time. Neither have increased testing nor the grading of public schools.
Critics may legitimately take issue with these findings. Greater competition and transparency certainly are not bad concepts, and they have not been around long enough to establish a track record. They help empower parents and require a level of accountability that wasn’t present before.
But, ideologies and agendas aside, one unavoidable truth shines through in the PISA results, and it demands attention. Children from wealthy families perform well, while those from poor families typically do not.
As a report on politico.com noted, if U.S schools with 10 percent or fewer students eligible for subsidized lunches were separated from the rest and treated as a nation, their scores would be second only to those in Shanghai in reading and science, while the math results would rank sixth in the world. That is considerably different than the 26th ranking the U.S. scored in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading.
In the United States, then, despite being nearly 60 years removed from a landmark Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation, the public school system remains separate and wholly unequal. But instead of being divided by race, it is divided by income levels.
It is this inequity that state school systems must address first and foremost. Doing so will require nothing short of a radical approach to reform. Officials in each state would do well to ask themselves what type of education system they would devise if they could completely eliminate the current system and start over, then work toward that end.
In some states this might involve an equalization plan, in which all districts receive an equal share of revenues. It may mean adding resources to schools in low-income areas or providing greater school choices to parents who need them most.
As some critics have noted, the United States continues to have a more robust and innovative economy than nearly all the nations included in the PISA results. But it should expect more of itself than to just rely on the children of wealthy parents to keep that condition going.