The new PISA results are out and they are fascinating, though not because the US’s lackluster performance has changed much. We’re still well below average in math (tying Ireland to rank 31st and well behind Estonia, Slovenia, and three different testing regions in China). We remain solidly average in reading, coming in 17th (deadlocked with Poland and Iceland). Our “big news” is that we moved up to a single point above average in science. America’s 15-year-olds now rank 23rd in the world in science.
The Chinese, meanwhile, participating in PISA for the first time, tested at the top in every subject. And it wasn’t even close. Students in Shanghai bested the previous top placeholder on the PISA math test–Singapore–by almost 40 points. US students fell 113 points behind their Chinese peers in math and 56 points behind in reading. And even our new and improved science score trailed China’s by 73 points.
Arne Duncan calls these scores “a wake-up call.” You think? I’m going to go out on limb here and predict that the Obama administration will use these scores as further fuel to do more of the same–push charters, promote merit pay, and spend more and more. We don’t oppose spending more on education or evaluating teachers more accurately, or creating more ways to deliver education. But there’s no evidence these activities are going to boost our students’ performance.
The Chinese are almost exclusively focused on getting their students to meet high standards in a wide range of subjects that have been spelled out in clear curriculum guidance that has been provided to all schools and teachers. They focus on what students should learn. While we are focused on how, where, when, why they learn.
Until we pour our attention and resources into high quality curricula that are proven to work we’ll continue to be average.