Paolo von Schirach
December 21, 2016
The international student proficiency scores gathered under the auspices of the Program for International Student Assessment, (also known as PISA), tell us a sad story about the state of U.S. public education. Simply stated, compared to the rest of the developed world, US kids do poorly in math and barely within average in other key subjects. How can America remain the world economic leader in this hyper competitive global knowledge economy, when U.S. school children do not know basic math?
Debates but no action
And please note that this new (and rather depressing) PISA international ranking is not news. Previous PISA scores were very similar. And these mediocre to bad comparative test results come after decades of sometimes heated debates in America focused on the need to drastically improve U.S. public education standards. Which is to say that endless deliberations yielded almost nothing of value.
Indeed the first loud warning about the state of U.S. public education came all the way back in 1983, with the publication of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”. This was a landmark report produced by then President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education.
We are not out of the woods
The publication of A Nation at Risk was supposed to be the wake-up call, the strong alarm bell that would force policy makers and civil society organizations to rethink and reorganize public education by improving standards and most of all the quality and preparedness of teachers.
Well, it did not work out that way. More than 30 years later, and notwithstanding good experimentation and some improvements, (think charter schools, for instance), we have yet to see major reforms implemented nationwide.
Hence the depressing performance of US kids in these international PISA scores, year after year.
Well, how bad is bad? Here is an account of the PISA results as published in US News and World Report:
“The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, study is the latest to document that American students are underperforming their peers in several Asian nations. The U.S. was below the international average in math and about average in science and reading. Singapore was the top performer in all three subjects on the PISA test.
More than half a million 15-year-old students in about 70 nations and educational systems took part in the 2015 exam. The test is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
Here are the main things to know about the PISA exams:
Not so encouraging.
The test is based on a 1,000-point scale. Among the findings:
-In math, the U.S. average score was 470, below the international average of 490. Average scores ranged from 564 in Singapore to 328 in the Dominican Republic.
-In science, the U.S. average score was 496, about the same as the international average of 493. Average scores ranged from 556 in Singapore to 332 in the Dominican Republic”.
U.S. students: bad in math, mediocre in other subjects
So, here is the picture, the U.S. placed number 25 (out of 70) in science; 24 (out of 70) in reading proficiency; and 40 (out of 70) in mathematics.
Here is the conclusion: America is still very much a “Nation at Risk’. It is just amazing and indeed inexcusable that decades of talking about education reform produced at best minimal results. If America were a poor under developed country with no resources, we could understand this under performance. But this is still the richest country on Earth. Given this country’s resources –financial and intellectual– the protracted inability to fix U.S. public education is inexplicable.
Here is the real story
Or may be this anomaly can be explained, after all. U.S. mediocre to bad scores averages hide the fact that in America we have what amounts to a two tier education system. One good and the other bad, or very bad.
Indeed, state of the art schools (mostly private) are available for the children of the elites who, for good money, can buy the best education available. The poor and the minorities (often one of the same) can access only mediocre or failing public schools. Not surprisingly, these under served students do poorly or very poorly in school. Indeed, some of them graduate from high school being functionally semi-illiterate. Some never graduate. If you combine good and very bad schools, the result is low average scores.
The elites are well served
The only conclusion here is that this surprising lack of interest in public education reform and improvements sadly stems from the fact that the children of the elites (the people who in the end make policy) are doing just fine, thank you.
As for all the others who are struggling, their learning conditions and dismal career and life prospects are not a national priority, it seems.
What a shame.
Paolo von Schirach is President of the Global Policy Institute and an Adjunct Professor at BAU International University. A different version of this article first appeared in the Schirach Report www.schirachreport.com
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.