A Department of Education release by Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, bemoans the fact that the 2009 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that America scored average in reading and science and below average in math. In his latest release, Duncan made the following statement:
“Today’s PISA results show that America needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century. More parents, teachers, and leaders need to recognize the reality that other high-achieving nations are both out-educating us and out-competing us. Our educational system has a long way to go to fulfill the American promise of education as the great equalizer.
Being average in reading and science — and below average in math — is not nearly good enough in a knowledge economy where scientific and technological literacy is so central to sustaining innovation and international competitiveness. The results are especially troubling because PISA assesses applied knowledge and the higher-order thinking skills critical to success in the information age.”
What he failed to report was that only six countries scored higher than the U.S. on reading, and we were on a par with the average for science. Additionally, we have shown improvements compared to past PISA results. We have stopped dropping in the international rankings, and, according to Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education: “there has been some improvement in the mean scores of all three subjects since the last assessment.”
Now, clearly, we have a ways to go, but I wish Mr. Duncan had at least mentioned the improvements which have been made. I also wish that in his statement, he would have taken a little time to talk about the elephant in the room. Let’s face it, in the countries which score so high, education is viewed very differently than it is by many here in the United States. It is the number one priority, and children learn that early on from their families. Working hard and doing your best at all times is a concept that is not just taught in the schools but at home as well. As a result, these countries have an advantage right off the bat.
When comparing data, scientists know that the variables which influence that data must be consistent and controlled. When studying test data from different countries, there are clearly no fixed or controlled variables other than the test itself. Therefore, the test results from the latest PISA are more an indictment against our country and its values than it is against those in education who work to prepare students to perform well on these constant tests which have little to no meaning for so many in the U.S. And it is an indictment of many in our society whose attitudes are openly disrespectful and critical toward public education in general.