National Flog Ourselves Week began last Tuesday when the OECD released its Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, the annual global survey of 15-year-olds' abilities in math, reading, and science, based on 2012 data.
We know one thing: The United States is below average in math, compared with 64 other participating countries. It is exactly average in science and math. (I have seen three different numbers on the actual country rankings, including differing ones from OECD and the Education Department. So I'm going to leave the headache of figuring that out to others—maybe someone from an above average country.)
Oh, the pain. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the stagnancy of American education can't be ignored any longer. "That brutal truth, that urgent reality, must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations," he said.
"The current 'education reform agenda' is bankrupt. There is no evidence that it can succeed. It is time to embrace a very different education reform agenda, said National Center on Education and the Economy President Marc Tucker. "Sadly, it marks a bad day for the United States."
There is more sadness. "Sadly, our nation has ignored the lessons from the high-performing nations," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. "These countries deeply respect public education, work to ensure that teachers are well-prepared and well-supported, and provide students not just with standards but with tools to meet them."
But wait. Aren't we the greatest country in the world? The answer is no. On education, we never have been. But consider that these global comparisons can only go so far. The PISA results are based on population, and each country (particularly China) has a different way of selecting which students take the test. More on these incongruities can be found in this helpful blog piece from Mary Jo Madda at EdSurge.
Also, keep in mind that scores and rankings should not be confused. The United States registered only modest differences on its scores since the previous year (in math, plus 0.03; in reading, minus 0.03), but its rankings shifted around. (Duncan says we dropped five spots in math and three in reading, but again, I don't trust those numbers. The Education Department says they are based on "the 62 education systems that administered the PISA in both 2009 and 2012." They say we rank 29th in math. OECD has it at 36th based on data from 65 countries.)
None of this back and forth should take away from what we already knew before the PISA results came out. The United States is stagnating, particularly in reading, and achievementgaps are still maddeningly wide between minorities and poor students and their more fortunate colleagues. We have other internal data that tells us this. The only question now is, "What do we do about it?"
What can the United States learn from countries like Poland, Switzerland, or Canada that rank higher but have more similar cultures to us than China? What are the most useful data in the PISA survey? Why should we compare our students' achievement to teens in other countries? Wouldn't it make more sense to look at whether our students get jobs and are productive here? Is there other data that gives a better assessment of how our students are doing?