Seven Take Aways from PISA Research

This past weekend, I’d heard enough from mainstream American media about the latest PISA international assessment data comparisons of our kids to everybody else’s kids. According to the results of the 2009 test of 15 year-olds around the world, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone children are long gone and those left are all just below average. I wanted to know more about the assessment, the findings of the OECD, and how the international media processed the results in other countries.

My I-search (shades of Ken MacCrorie) journey led me to chase international media reports as well as to dig more deeply into the published PISA research reported by the OECD, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. Seven points resonated as important take aways from the data.  However, I am left with two questions. after reading, researching, and engaging with my friend @colonelb throughout the weekend. First, do we Americans believe that what PISA measures makes sense? And, second, do  we have the will to transform the way we do educational business?

After all, we have a track record of working harder to sustain than abandon the traditions of 20th century factory schools. For those who do make an effort to change, they typically  garner little support from inside or outside our system of schools. For the most part, the public, politicians, and educators prefer to maintain the schools of our past rather than make the changes we would need to make to demonstrate a new level of personal best against international expectations.

Perhaps it’s our “belief” filters that don’t allow us to see the mismatch between our current state and the evolving practices of those countries whose students excel on the cognitively challenging and interesting PISA tasks that are practically non-existent in U.S. schools. At some level, unlike the rest of the world, we are pretty okay with our learners’ performance or we would be unifying as a nation to do something about it. But, as it goes of late, our philosophies divide us and we live in a chess game gone awry; floundering along caught in a never-ending educational stalemate.

This weekend, I deepened my understanding of PISA assessment data and reflected upon what I learned. Here it is. No surprises, really.

1) IRS Effect: Poverty plays a critical factor in the potential for learners to achieve success on the PISA. Interestingly, the learning performance of children in the United States is more affected by poverty than in most countries in the OECD’s PISA pool.  Our middle class kids who do not live in poverty position the United States above the rest of the world’s countries in reading performance.  In other words, the reading scores of learners in U.S. schools with less than 10% poverty exceed all other PISA participants in reading, except the city of Shanghai.  For our schools with greater than 75% poverty, we are second from the bottom. Poverty, quite simply, trumps all other factors influencing U.S. learners’ performance.

2) Playing Field: The quality of teaching represents the single most important factor inside schools that affects learners’ performance. Recruiting, placing and retaining top-notch teachers in the most challenged schools makes a difference.  That’s clear in the PISA data. It’s also laid out in a regarded report of the Illinois Education Research Council. As noted in this IERC report, teaching quality’s not the panacea that will by itself eliminate learning gaps in international, national, state or local assessments; “… a higher TQI (teacher quality index) helps, but does not level the playing field with regard to challenges that schools with high poverty face.” But, teachers do make a difference. High performing countries invest in creating and maintaining a high quality teaching workforce. They make changes in pedagogy and content that will lead to a higher level of expertise in teaching. Shanghai began working to accomplish that prior to participating for the first time in the 2009 PISA tests.

Shanghai’s Systemic Changes

“Among the lessons to be learned was that authorities in both cities abandoned their focus on educating a small elite, and instead worked to construct a more inclusive system. They also significantly increased teacher pay and training, reducing the emphasis on rote learning and focusing classroom activities on problem solving. In Shanghai, now a pioneer of educational reform, “there has been a sea change in pedagogy,” the OECD said. It pointed out that one new slogan used in classrooms today is: “To every question there should be more than a single answer.”

3)Think Systems, Systems, and More Systems: Poverty, overall, forms the significant contributing factor to learning gaps inside schools. It’s evident from the OECD research that the high performance of young people in the top performing nations occurs because those countries use a systems-approach to sustain families who otherwise would lack health services, appropriate nutrition, and early childcare and pre-schooling among other social services. They do not leave to chance or a means test whether children receive access to a full range of services necessary to ensure they enter school with all they need to be successful. Finland uses such a systems approach to provide a full range of services necessary to learning success.

Finland: A system involving more than education (p.122)

“The first thing to note is that these schools offer more than education. these are full-service schools. they provide a daily hot meal for every student. they provide health and dental services. they offer guidance and psychological counselling, and access to a broader array of mental health and other services for students and families in need. none of these services is means-tested. their availability to all reflects a deep societal commitment to the well-being of all children.”

4) We all admire the problem of “Gender Performance” gaps: Girls out perform boys as readers around the world. Everyone seems to worry about it. This is not new news in the United States and we’ve admired this problem awhile and attributed it to mothers, fathers, teachers, the boys themselves, and maybe even the girls. It’s a problem in the top performing countries and the bottom-quartile countries. It cuts across demographics. On the other hand, girls do a bit worse than boys in math, but it doesn’t seem to capture the same level of attention as the boys do in reading. No one seems to have solved the gender gap. I wonder why.

5) Family Matters: The educational background of the parent(s) and economic status of parent(s) both make a difference in learners’ performance. The more educated the parent(s), the more likely that a learner will have access to the academic background knowledge necessary for success in school.  The OECD report (p. 30) notes that:

“In general, more highly educated parents may decide to invest more of their time and energy into educating their children or they may choose to guide their daily interactions with their children in ways that help them succeed at school. Parents with more prestigious occupations may become role models for their children.3 the possibility of ultimately having one of these occupations, which are generally associated with better education, can be an incentive for children to devote more effort to their performance at school. certain household possessions, such as a quiet place to study or a desk, may also provide an advantage for children. Wealthier families will generally be able either to provide more educational resources at home or to choose schools that will supply them with these resources. Family home background may also be related to student performance through the community context. If a school is located in a city, students may enjoy additional resources nearby, such as public libraries and museums, which support learning and may be less accessible to students attending a rural school.”

To impact this factor means that a nation has to invest for generations in the educational development of its entire citizenry. China, and other countries, recognize this. The United States once led the world in the percentage of college graduates per capita. Today, the current generation of U.S. high school graduates will, for the first time in decades, obtain a lower level of education than the generation above it. Enough said.

6)If you test and teach like you always have, you’ll get the same results you always got”: In the Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner notes that the United States puts a lot of stock in cheap-to-administer standardized, selected-response tests as a measure of achievement. A report co-sponsored by the Asia Society and the Council of Chief State School Officers specifically addresses the discrepancy between how and what states across our country assess versus the rest of the world. Few  nations employ high-stakes, summative tests like we Americans do.  We experienced educators have heard for a lifetime that “what gets assessed gets taught.” What conclusions can we draw from the assessment gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world?

For one, as long as we don’t value the kind of learning measured by PISA, we will doom our kids to continued failure  – unless we decide to shift how and what we assess to align with international expectations and benchmarks for what’s worth learning. What’s that look like? Well, could you answer this PISA math question? Could the typical 15 year-old in the United States?  Does your state include items such as this on its high stakes tests?

7) Respect the Profession: Countries with a high level of performance on the PISA assessments put banks on the river to “loosely” define what’s important to learn and then recruit educators from the top tier of college graduates and turn them loose to teach. Singapore, Finland, and Ontario put great stock in the profession and teachers are highly respected.  Rather than a culture of inspection, rewards, and top-down management, teachers in the highest performing countries engage in critical and ongoing job-embedded development that has become the norm as this description of Finland’s approach tells us.

“Teachers working at all levels of education are well-trained and strongly committed to their work. All teachers are required to hold a Master’s degree and initial teacher training includes teaching practice. The teaching profession is highly respected and popular in Finland, which makes it possible to select the best young students. Teachers have an independent position in their work.”

8. Reflection Leads to Action: Around the world, reactions to the results of PISA vary.  Germany isn’t so happy, but Norway is pleased with improvements. Japan is worried ,but South Korea isn’t. Ireland’s lost ground, but Ontario’s on top. They all are thinking though about the challenges and changes they will next make.

@colonelb, Superintendent Dave Britten of Godfrey-Lee Schools, reflects on the differences between the U.S. way and the Finnish way. If the traditions of factory schooling are being abandoned in nations such as Finland, he wonders why we aren’t emulating what the Finns have figured out as to what works? Peter Pappas, @edteck, thinks we need to worry less about the competition and attend more to the PISA problems our kids can’t solve and spend time figuring out what we need to do so they can.

And, interestingly, some of the Chinese take the results of Shanghai’s learning performance with a grain of salt. In the China Daily, an op-editor points out plenty of concerns about their education boot camp approach to school and what needs to  be improved.

“But we should not become complacent. The mixed results from the tests, competitions and surveys all over the world remind us of the flaws in our education system. However, the fulsome compliments for Chinese students’ high grades are not necessarily justification that we can glory in our education. A global survey of teenagers worldwide in November ranked Chinese students at the bottom when it comes to applying creativity and imagination. The results of both the program and survey reflect the true qualities of our teenage students and the nation’s education. China’s education stresses textbook knowledge rather than a fundamental understanding of subjects. Both teachers and parents look at education with an eye on fame and success. For them, a successful education means entering a prestigious school and getting high grades on tests, while neglecting the fact that education also plays a crucial role in nurturing a healthy and complete personality.”

We won’t solve the problems of PISA in a year or two and without grassroots support for transforming schools, we never will. Educational change takes time as  we learned from the Sputnik era. We approach the holiday season, a time of reflection. I encourage you to join with others in the formative #blog4reform grassroots movement to describe what actions you will take to transform your learning spaces, your school, your district, your state; one community at a time.

If not you, then who? If not now, then when? After all, as they say in Shanghai, a journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step.

RT @colonelb: From Dec 26-Jan 1, we’ll Blog 4 Real Education Reform-The (Action) Sequel #blog4reform

About pamelamoran

Educator in Virginia, creating 21st c community learning spaces for all kinds of learners, both adults and young people. I read, garden, listen to music, and capture photo images mostly of the natural world. My posts represent a personal point of view on topics of interest.
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8 Responses to Seven Take Aways from PISA Research

  1. Bill Sterrett says:

    I enjoyed the different angles here, Pam. Is PISA “the Sputnik of our time?” See related article at Finally, as far as the “Finnish way,” is concerned, does that just mean reduce our child poverty rate to 3%? Our current F/R lunch rate as a nation hovers near 30% in most areas. What intervening variables could be related in that regard?

  2. Tim Lauer says:

    Great post and a great perspective on the PISA information. … a nice bit of reading at the end of my day… Thanks…

    Tim Lauer

  3. Pamela,

    Great Post
    I love how you began number 6. That is so true and we need to be looking at new and creative ways to insure that our students are learning and different and better ways to assess that learning

    Have a Happy and Healthy New Year

    • pamelamoran says:


      Thank you- we are so bonded with our traditions of past educational practice- at least in the last 100 years or so- that we have difficulty seeing a future that will not be bound to those practices. Despite those “best” practices that we hold dear, our young people overall are no better readers than they were 30 years ago. In fact, I have begun to redefine what I understand as literacy because of the potential for technology to create different pathways for young people to move information into their minds and to translate what they are thinking back out without touching a book, pencil, or keyboard. Our culture is tied to the post-Gutenberg era of learning that resulted in passive learners, a teaching wall, and great stock in information retention. Today, we have the potential to restore learners and learning to a pre-Gutenberg world in which learning occurs actively, in cooperation with others, and as an expression of analytical and creative thought in tandem with knowledge acquisition. To solve our way through the world’s big issues and problems, learning cannot be reserved to the cognitively elite or the privileged few. In the first tribes, no one could be exempted from learning the knowledge needed by the tribe to survive. I believe our young people are capable learners and that we now have the potential to create spaces in which they all can learn in powerful ways. #6 speaks to the adults owning the changes we must make to build pathways for all young people to find success as learners. Learning in the most ancient of times was expressed through singing, dancing, writing, and performing. We cannot underestimate the power of those best practices alongside those that new technologies afford us today in the hands of committed, passionate, and caring educators.

      Peace be with you as we enter this next year-


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  5. Kelvin says:

    I am so glad to have read this post…I am in the process of writing my Master dissertation on PISA influence…very helpful!

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