Thursday, August 23, 2012

PISA and Poverty: Time for Both/And Solutions

Leans to the left....
The Program for International Student Assessment results have become a political football for crtics of our public education system.  The United States middle of the pack scores on these international benchmarks are said to be an indication of the "failure" of our public schools, and a threat to national security, a tired narrative that has been repeated since the ascent of neo-liberalism in the 1980's.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) describes PISA as follows:
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies such as problem solving. PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries. Begun in 2000, PISA is administered every 3 years. Each administration includes assessments of all three subjects, but assesses one of the subjects in depth. The most recent administration was in 2009 and focused on reading literacy.
There are ways of considering these results that reveal that our public education system is first rate, and that our failures are not failures of education policy, but a colossal ethical lapse by a rich and powerful society that refuses to invest in its own future by failing to attend to the basic human needs of its youngest citizens.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) disaggregated the PISA results by poverty, with the metric being the number of students on free or reduced lunch. For example, when you compare US schools with free/reduced population of 10% or less with countries reporting less than 10% child poverty, the US schools outperform. Similarly, 10-25%. Over 25%, Mexico is the only comparable, and again, US schools outperform.
Frighteningly, the US is headed for a child poverty rate of 25%. And, even more amazingly, we have schools in this country with near 100% poverty. Where are the comps? Chad? Malawi? Looking at these results, its clear other developed nations don’t tolerate that sort of poverty among those who will be building their futures.
Poverty is a ball and chain on our education system. While as a professional educator I wholeheartedly support efforts to improve instruction, I have to ask can’t we at least move forward simultaneously on the problem of child poverty? This is not excuse making – its a both/and solution. We need a holistic approach to solving our nation’s problems, one which admits that economic upheaval, social dislocation, war, etc have an effect on education attainment, and also admits that educational success impacts our ability to address those other problems.
The Obama/Duncan approach tries to fix education by putting it in a silo – and worse, uses rhetoric which encourages people to believe that we can somehow educate our way out of systemic poverty. This burdens our education system with unrealistic expectations and distorts policy. Cut that ball and chain and the policies we would be looking at to improve education would be VERY different.
Compliance with testing mandates is not very high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for people living under what for most of us would be unimaginable conditions. 


  1. In the US, one of the myths about public education is that it is failing. Yet the NASPP analysis suggest otherwise. So yes, the problem is poverty, not underachieving schools.

    But do you think that PISA is a worthwhile assessment of student learning? if so, where are the international learning standards that would/could support international comparisons?

    What if all children were "school ready," everyday, pre-K through 12?

    1. Gamal,
      Having never seen nor experienced this particular test, I can't really say whether it is a worthwhile assessment. That it is worthwhile is an assumption embedded in criticism of US public education on the basis of our middle of the pack status on this measurement.

      Most sensible countries would go, "Oh good, we're right where we should be, among the top performing nations." Why do we use this otherwise interesting data as a crowbar to tear at our own system? Is it our competitive culture, the mentality that number two is the first loser?

      This isn't a sports-entertainment thing. It's people's lives.

  2. Steve,

    I am really concerned about relentless international comparisons, the state of our economy, and the finger pointing at education. We know that poorer children don't do as well in school as their wealthier counterparts. Yet when the wealthier students finally arrive on Wall Street, foundations or think tanks, they implicate [inadequate] teachers as the source of economic inequities. But the economic (and democratic) inequities are actually created and maintained by the leaders of the economic system.

    I don't mind refining the message in the echo chamber, and I am inspired by your writings. However, I wonder where, when or which Secretary of Education will stop telling teachers to "work harder" and will start talking about creating the social/economic context so that children arrive at school everyday ready to learn.

    1. Amen! "However, I wonder where, when or which Secretary of Education....will start talking about....the social/economic context..." The tragedy is that our entire political establishment has surrendered and accepts that vast swaths of our population will be systemically excluded from the American Dream. One party actively promotes poverty and inequity, while the other deftly ignores its growth with neo-liberal technocratic tinkering around the edges of the problem.

      The country has slid so far to the right that even talking about any meaningful solution consigns one to the political margins. Taxation is no longer regarded as a mutual investment in our future, but rather as an expense to be avoided and even eliminated. The political dialogue (if indeed it can be called a dialogue) is poisoned with toxic rhetoric the likes of which have not been heard in any democracy since the later days of the Weimar Republic.

  3. How does the incidence of the poverty vary across demographic groups in the United States? Why do we see differences in poverty rates between racial and ethnic groups? Which groups are least likely to experience poverty and why?

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