Monday, December 16, 2013

PISA Wars: 2013 Scores “Prove” that America’s Schools (Hospitals, Police Stations and Gyms) Are Failing!

Let the gnashing of teeth begin! Unleash the editorial floodgates! Grab your children, parents, and hide them until it’s safe! 

America’s public schools have “failed again.” So say the critics. And this time they’ve got facts to prove it—well facts from one test!!! Once again our 15-year-olds got pummeled on the Program for International Student Assessment tests (PISA).

Somewhere in a Washington, D. C. bar, U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is weeping in his beer.

How “bad” is it? Oh, very bad indeed!!! (We need extra exclamation points to make this clear!!!!!) As a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor explains it our kids finished 20th in reading out of 65 nations and provinces tested. They finished 23rd in science and 30th in math.

Well, what do PISA scores prove? Do they show that the last decade of U. S. school reform has made the situation worse? You could argue that. In fact, in the last three years, the United States has dropped from 10th in reading, 19th in science and 24th in math.[1]

Perhaps this flagellation over PISA scores is completely overblown. Start with the fact that before 2000 the test did not exist. Somehow, we managed to get along. And what do we really know if Japanese students, beat ours in all three areas?

Some of this should be obvious. Japanese students attend classes 240 days per year.[2] That means three years of school in Japan equal four years in the U. S. (Here in Ohio a school year is 180 days). Want to come to grips with how that might affect PISA math scores? Take two runners to the nearest track and tell them the winner of the race they are about to begin will be the person who runs the farthest in the next 240 seconds. Then tell one runner he cannot start until the other runner has a sixty-second lead. Then claim that the first runner was actually better. Or do what critics of America’s teachers do. Compare finishes and blame the losing coach.

Let’s say we want our kids to catch up. We could ask them to run harder. We could ask them to run longer. Or we might ask them to do both. Students from Australia also scored higher on the PISA tests and they attend classes 200 days per year. That means nine years in school Down Under equals ten in the United States. South Koreans have a significantly longer academic year. When classes end for the day they’re not done, either. Most South Korean teens head for after-hours cram sessions. An average day of studying for them is fourteen hours long.

If we want to “catch” the better runners we might copy their “training methods” too. Finland (see all charts below) has been held up as a model for us to follow. School critics in the U. S. turn out reams of articles indicating that we should copy the Finnish system. Finland selects teachers only from the top third of their college classes. Well, then, obviously, what we need in America are “smarter” teachers. Then America’s kids will all be fine. They will kick ass on the PISA test—even if they don’t work as long or as hard as peers in distant lands.

How about this idea? We take a page from Finland and do away with all school sports. Think of the time we could devote to studying math and science if we stopped shooting hoops and cutting time out of English class to send our students to football pep rallies! Yeah, that idea is really going to fly. Maybe we should eat more reindeer.

It’s working for the Finns.

Meanwhile, I think you can pull out all kinds of “comparative” charts and graphs and prove all kinds of nonsense if you desire. Consider our dismal ranking in the PISA reading rankings for 2013. Oh, woe, woe, woe! Our students finished 20th. Well, it looks like we’re screwed politically and economically then, too. In a recent ranking of government and business the United States finished behind eighteen nations when ranked for corruption. You read that right. We finished in 19th place! So, you might argue, that our reading teachers are doing a job comparable to our representatives in Congress and all the brilliant financiers on Wall Street.

(Sorry teachers:  I don’t mean to compare you to lawmakers in Washington. That seems like a truly low blow.)

Of course, these kinds of “comparisons” are absurd and counter-productive in the end. Yet the critics keep making them. So let’s use statistics in our own defense. Are U. S. teachers really failing? Are the schools a total mess?

Let’s start by comparing the latest PISA rankings in math (left column) and the latest life expectancy figures for select nations round the globe. We may have finished 30th in math. In life expectancy we did much worse. We came in 49th.

    PISA MATH                                                                   LIFE EXPECTANCY

1.      South Korea—554                                                          Monaco—89.6 years
2.      Japan—536                                                                    Japan—84.2                                     
3.      Lichtenstein—535                                                          Switzerland—82.3 
4.      Switzerland—531                                                           Australia—82.0
5.      Netherlands—523                                                          Italy—82.0
6.      Estonia—521                                                                 Lichtenstein—81.6
7.      Finland—519                                                                 Canada—81.6
8.      Canada—518                                                                France—81.6
9.      Poland—518                                                                  Sweden—81.3
10.   Belgium—515                                                                Israel—81.2
11.   Germany—514                                                              Iceland—81.1 
12.   Austria—506                                                                  Netherlands—81.0
13.   Australia—504                                                               Bermuda—80.9
14.   Ireland—501                                                                  New Zealand—80.9
15.   Slovenia—501                                                               Ireland—80.4
16.   Denmark—500                                                              Norway—80.4
17.   New Zealand—500                                                        Germany—80.3
18.   Czech Republic—499                                                   Jordan—80.3
19.   France—495                                                                  United Kingdom—80.3
20.   United Kingdom—494                                                    Greece—80.2
21.   Iceland—493                                                                  Austria—80.2
22.   Latvia—491                                                                    Luxembourg—79.9
23.   Luxembourg—490                                                         Belgium—79.6
24.   Norway—489                                                                 Virgin Islands—79.6
25.   Portugal—487                                                                Finland—79.6
26.   Italy—485                                                                       South Korea—79.6
27.   Spain—484                                                                    Denmark—78.9
28.   Russian Federation—482                                              Portugal—78.9
29.   Slovak Republic—482                                                    Guam—78.7
30.   UNITED STATES—481                                                 UNITED STATES—78.6
     (actual ranking:  49th out of 223 nations.)

Countries in green appear on both lists. You know what this means? If America’s teachers and schools are failing our doctors and hospitals are too!

What happens if we list scores in science (left) and homicide rates per 100,000 in population (right)? Let’s see how our great nation fares:

    PISA SCIENCE                                                                 HOMICIDE RATE

1.      Japan—547                                                                    Lichtenstein—0.0
2.      Finland—545                                                                  Japan—0.3
3.      Estonia—541                                                                  Bahrain—0.5
4.      South Korea—538                                                          Switzerland—0.6
5.      Poland—526                                                                   Czech Republic—0.8
6.      Canada—525                                                                  Luxembourg—0.8
7.      Lichtenstein—525                                                           Denmark—0.8
8.      Germany—524                                                               Austria—0.8
9.      Netherlands—522                                                          Slovenia—0.8
10.   Ireland—522                                                                   Spain—0.8 
11.   Australia—521                                                                Germany—0.8
12.   New Zealand—516                                                         New Zealand—0.9
13.   Switzerland—515                                                            Ireland—0.9
14.   Slovenia—514                                                                 Italy—0.9
15.   United Kingdom—514                                                     Iceland—0.9
16.   Czech Republic—508                                                    Sweden—0.9
17.   Austria—506                                                                   Australia—1.1
18.   Belgium—505                                                                 Portugal—1.1
19.   Latvia—502                                                                     Croatia—1.1
20.   France—499                                                                   Poland—1.2
21.   Denmark—498                                                               France—1.2
22.   UNITED STATES—497                                                  Hungary—1.4
23.   Lithuania—496                                                                Canada—1.5
24.   Spain—496                                                                     United Kingdom—1.5 (estimated)
25.   Norway—495                                                                  Romania—1.6
26.   Italy—494                                                                        Greece—1.6
27.   Hungary—494                                                                 Belgium—1.8
28.   Luxembourg—491                                                          Israel—2.0
29.   Croatia—491                                                                   Finland—2.2
30.   Portugal—489                                                                 UNITED STATES—4.7
                                                                                             (we rank 53rd out of 83 reporting nations)

Other countries with “terrible science teachers” would include:  Russia (486), Israel (470), Turkey (463), and Mexico (415). With all those lousy science teachers you wonder how Russia and Israel ever managed to invent their own atomic bombs.

As for terrible police:  we finished with more murders per capita than South Korea (2.6), Australia (1.1) and almost certainly the Netherlands (0.9 in an earlier report). Latvia was not cited either. So:  Estonia was the only country proven to have “better” science teachers and “worse” cops. The homicide rate in Estonia was 4.8.

Finally, let’s look at PISA reading scores and compare them with childhood poverty rates.

    PISA READING                                                               % OF CHILDREN LIVING IN POVERTY

1.      Japan—538                                                                    Finland—about 4%
2.      South Korea—536                                                          Netherlands—6
3.      Finland—524                                                                   Denmark—6
4.      Canada—523                                                                  Iceland—7
5.      Ireland—523                                                                    Norway—7
6.      Poland—518                                                                   Cyprus—7
7.      Lichtenstein—516                                                           Slovenia—7.5
8.      Estonia—516                                                                  Sweden—7.5
9.      Australia—512                                                                Austria—7.5
10.   New Zealand—512                                                          Ireland—8
11.   Netherlands—511                                                           Switzerland—9
12.   Switzerland—509                                                           Germany—9
13.   Belgium—509                                                                 Malta—9
14.   Germany—508                                                               France—9
15.   France—505                                                                  Czech Republic—9.5
16.   Norway—504                                                                  United Kingdom—10
17.   United Kingdom—499                                                    Hungary—10
18.   UNITED STATES—498                                                  Belgium—10
19.   Denmark—496                                                               Australia—11
20.   Czech Republic—493                                                    New Zealand—12 
21.   Austria—490                                                                   Luxembourg—12
22.   Italy—490                                                                        Estonia—12
23.   Latvia—489                                                                     Slovakia—13
24.   Hungary—488                                                                 Poland—14
25.   Luxembourg—488                                                          Canada—14
26.   Portugal—488                                                                 Japan—15
27.   Spain—488                                                                      Portugal—15
28.   Israel—486                                                                      Greece—15
29.   Croatia—485                                                                   Italy—17
30.   Iceland—483                                                                   Lithuania—17.5
(the U. S. ranked 34th out of 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)

Every nation that beat us in reading had lower childhood poverty rates—with South Korea not included as an OECD member and Lichtenstein not reporting.

Finally, I should note that workout facilities for adults in this country must be terrible. We have the evidence to prove it! Our dieticians and fitness trainers must be the worst in the whole wide world! Rating nations for obesity, we find Japanese dieticians and trainers must be great! Only 5% of Japanese adults are obese. The South Koreans are doing fine:  7.7% of their adults are obese. The Swiss, French, Swedes and Brazilians all beat us. Finland? Damn it! The Finns beat us again! Only 23% of Finland’s adults are obese. Could their secret be all those reindeer steaks they eat?

Yes! America’s trainers are failing!!!!! (Need more exclamation points!!!!!) One of every three Americans, 33%, are obese. Where do we rank when it comes to good eating and exercise?

We rank 174th.

I’m so depressed now, I think I’ll go eat some cookies. Or maybe grill up a juicy reindeer burger. Finland beats us every time.

[1] It’s hard to figure out which nations reporters are including. If Vietnam is counted the U. S. comes in 23rd in science—but 31st in math. When I looked at the lists and dropped Vietnam in all three categories it seemed we were 22nd in science. None of the lists I have drawn up include scores for Singapore, Hong Kong, or other Chinese cities that reported separately.
               Figures from 2010 also differ from those in the story by the Christian Science Monitor. In a comparison of PISA scores for 34 advanced nations the United States finished tied for 12th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science,
[2] Other sources say the figure is 220 or 200.


  1. Congrats on having Diane Ravitch post one of your pieces on her blog.

  2. When I posted this to Badass Teachers Association's Facebook page George Hess, who lives in Singapore, pointed out: "Singapore is not a Chinese city. It's an independent country. A teacher making such an error is hardly someone who we should be holding up as a defender of US education."

    He is correct of course. But maybe a little too grumpy in the morning. I will never, never, never again forget that Singapore is at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.