The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

The New PISA Results


The National Center for Education Statistics has released the new PISA 2012 results. Basically, U.S. educational performance hovers around the OECD average, and it has done so for some time now. But the U.S. lags far behind the top performers in East Asia, Europe, and North America (i.e., Canada). Lyndsey Layton has a fair-minded summary of the results.

Rather impressively, critics of the education reform movement seem to have shifted from arguing that their strategies will improve U.S. performance on international comparisons of educational performance to arguing that international comparisons don’t matter, as the U.S. has always fared poorly on such tests and it hasn’t made much of a difference — an argument which assumes that the U.S. wouldn’t be substantially richer in a counterfactual world in which our educational institutions were more effective. Part of the story could be that Finland, the poster child for reform critics, has been slipping in the international league tables, and left-of-center Finns warn darkly against allowing the “Global Education Reform Movement (GERM)” (see what they did there?) to take root in Finland. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, a critic of high-stakes testing and market-oriented reform, prepared for disappointing PISA results in the middle of last month:

So expect to hear more cries of disaster on Dec. 3, when the United States is nearly certain to be somewhere in the middle (or worse) on the latest PISA scores. You will hear reformers call for more reform — totally ignoring the fact that for well over a decade American school reform has been centered on standardized tests and other reforms that haven’t moved the  international test score needle.

There are a couple of small problems with this line of analysis that immediately come to mind:

1. States have been shielded from testing requirements by President Obama’s Education Department, as Paul E. Peterson of Harvard’s Project on Education Policy and Governance has explained. The forward march of rigorous testing has been halted in much of the U.S.

2. Massachusetts, where high-stakes testing has arguably gone furthest, consistently performs above the U.S. average in mathematics, science, and reading literacy, and it generally finds itself in the middle of the pack among European performers (and well below the top East Asian performers). And as Josh Barro has observed, Massachusetts’ strong performance can’t be attributed to favorable demographics, as members of disadvantaged groups in Massachusetts tend to fare much better than their counterparts in other states.

In Endangering Prosperity, Eric Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludwig Woessman offer a different take on international comparisons like PISA. They see PISA as a valuable and revealing tool, though they acknowledge its limitations. That sounds about right.

Strauss insists that it is foolish to emphasize the strong educational performance of Shanghai, as Shanghai is only part of China, which is of course true — it is a city of 14.35 million. So let’s compare Shanghai with Massachusetts, a U.S. state with a population of 6.65 million, and other states. The following is drawn from Endangering Prosperity:

Shanghai topped the list with a 75 percent math proficiency rate, well over twice the 32 percent rate of the United States. However, Shanghai students are from a prosperous metropolitan area within China, with over three times the per capita GDP of the rest of that country, so their performance is more appropriately compared to that of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota, who are similarly favored and are the top performers among U.S. states. When this comparison is made, Shanghai still performs at a distinctly higher level. Only a little more than half (51 percent) of Massachusetts students are proficient in math, while Minnesota, the runner-up state, has a math proficiency rate of just 43 percent.

Only four additional states— Vermont, North Dakota, New Jersey, and Kansas— have a math proficiency rate above 40 percent. Some of the country’s largest and richest states score below the average for the United States as a whole, including New York (30 percent), Missouri (30 percent), Michigan (29 percent), Florida (27 percent), and California (24 percent).

This obviously isn’t to suggest that the U.S. ought to mimic Shanghai’s policies, or that falling short of its math proficiency rate is necessarily a problem. But it seems odd to be glibly confident that U.S. underperformance relative to other countries is of no consequence going forward, as there is widespread agreement that cognitive skills matter for economic performance. We’ve discussed the potential economic benefits of improving U.S. educational performance in the past. Hanushek et al. use a simple simulation to illustrate the point in their book. If the U.S. does nothing to improve educational performance, U.S. GDP per capita will more than double over the next eighty years, going from approximately $50,000 to $125,000. Matching Canadian educational performance will lift GDP per capita in the 2090s to more than $200,000. Matching Singaporean educational performance will lift GDP per capita to well over $300,000. A good first step might be to draw on the lessons of the top U.S. performers, like Massachusetts (which does about as well as Canada). And then we might want to implement systems that can improve performance across discrete instructional areas, like course-level instructional choice that allows effective instructional models to spread across schools. Or we can keep throwing good money after bad, because that’s fun too.




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