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.
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. 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.
It’s working for the Finns.
(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?
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.
 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,
 Other sources say the figure is 220 or 200.