Will Students still come to America after PISA 2012?

Chart courtesy of theGuardian.com

After American 15-year-olds scored 36th overall on the global Reading, Math, and Science test, will parents continue to send their students to study in America? Test-obsessed parts of the globe may look at the 2012 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and determine that our K-12 education does not compare to theirs. Or parents might not care and just send their kids to America anyway. (We’ve still got the highest ranked universities in the world…)

I’ve commented before on the results of the PISA test in 2009 and while it may seem that American kids are not great test-takers, there are A LOT more comparisons that need to be drawn in order to determine whether a student is “successful” or not. Participation in group activities, presentation making, and creative thinking are very difficult to grade objectively; but unfortunately, the easiest way to compare A LOT of students is to quantify their answers in test format. From these results our leaders and decision makers have to make judgment calls about what to do next. Our results were poor, but how do we improve?

Before we start the heated debate over who is to blame and what needs to change, we should definitely take a closer look at both obvious and less obvious winners. Certainly Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong have their own advantages which we can learn from, arguably- like their longer school days, test-focused instruction, and reduced physical education. These are obvious tactics which we probably could begrudgingly employ but they may not be the only solutions.

SmartestKidsintheWorldRipley9.12In Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way, she makes some interesting highlights about the types of countries that have succeeded at PISA. It’s not only about having “the smartest kids” but also a certain kind of teaching excellence. For instance, Finland is a great example of teaching excellence because of their reposturing of the teaching profession in their society. In the 1960s they shut down teacher training schools and reopened them as part of the top (ivy league) schools in that country. By doing so, teaching quality became stronger, and perhaps more importantly, students noticed… A ripple effect ensued through out the system which has resulted in Finland leading much of the rest of Europe in test scores.

In America, she says, we educate 2x the amount of teachers our education system needs. But when you set standards (not just a list of certifications needed for entry into the profession) but actually put teachers on the same pedestal as doctors or lawyers, the obvious value added to the education system can be seen (in scores), not just heard (from politicians).

“Getting into education colleges in Finland is like getting into MIT in the United States.” She mentioned on Fareed Zakaria’s program last week. “Teachers could then be paid more, given even more freedom, and given the respect they deserve.” I would love to see this happen, too.

Our kids are amazing and they are smart! In their minds, the pressure is on to perform on a stage that some teachers might not be preparing them for. And although the solution sounds like “teaching to the test” or getting prescribed standards that anyone could teach, our teachers really should feel the same pressure these kids feel. We should reverse the idea of “those who can do, those who can’t teach” to “the best who CAN teach.” Only then will we achieve better results in our own way and through our own approaches.



  • Um, You missed ONE GIANT POINT. The test scores that are reported on these tests and others are skewed in China. I listened to the US consulate general describe the exact same thing during one of his speeches about education. He was so far out of touch with what actually goes on. Grades, test scores, rankings, all of that stuff, (no matter how independent the source) are BOUGHT and PAID FOR in China. I briefly had the opportunity as a veteran teacher in China to speak with him briefly afterward. I told him a story about being in the teacher’s office and witnessing the school administrator allow the students to blatantly cheat on one of their tests in order to boost their application status to US universities. Chinese students and their parents go as far as hiring foreigners to write their samples submitted to the admissions departments of US universities. The point is, you can’t trust any statistic that comes out of China, because somewhere along the way, the results of those statistics have been paid for. You can google the above mentioned by typing, “cheating in and out of the classroom.” Or try, “dangerously easy esl blog”

    • benpiscopo

      Good point Deesl,
      Cheating is extremely pervasive across China. The challenge, especially for international ranking systems, is to find some common ground. Having said that, the international community can’t just paint the whole country with one brush; otherwise we’ll be reduced to name calling and a breakdown in cross-cultural ties.

      Ways to work around this? The increase in standards-based, non-local tests (like IELTS and iTeps) would provide a stronger measurement, for language rating at least. As long as those proctoring and processing exams do not feel obligated to help people cheat (or are incentivized to help cheaters), then a reliable testing outcome is possible. (In my opinion of course)

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂