Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Myth of PISA Scores

Education reform advocates frequently point to the PISA scores as a reason why we need to change how we educate our students, yet a deeper look at the data tells a different story. When the scores are adjusted to income levels, each economic strata of our country outperforms their counterparts across the globe. This article gives a detailed breakdown of this revealing data:

It would stand to reason that if we took students from countries that education reformers admire (Finland, Singapore) and enrolled those students in U.S. schools, their PISA scores would improve. The conclusion here being that The United States actually has the best education system, pound for pound, in the world. Unfortunately, the masses are in the dark about the state of education in the United States.

This is not to say we can not improve. We certainly can and we certainly should.

This also does not change the fact that students from unstable home environments are not receiving the same world-class education that students from happy, stable environments are receiving. This is a problem regardless of the reason, so if we are serious about helping these students learn at the level of our wealthier students, we need to identify the real obstacles. In an effort to shift the conversation about education reform toward these real obstacles and away from misinformed rhetoric, I reached out to Dr. Wesley Renfro, who teaches at St. John Fisher College.

Q: Dr. Renfro, when we look at the real data from the PISA tests, we see that poverty, not pedagogy is the reason our nation-wide average is low in the United States. You eloquently echoed this sentiment in your recent
letter to Atlantic Magazine. Even with this new understanding of PISA scores, The United States still has the very real problem that large swaths of our children are not receiving a world-class education. There are no easy answers, but what solutions do you propose to help close this gap between our students?

Dr. Renfro: The gaps in educational achievement are a symptom of growing income inequality in the United States. In the past 30 or so years, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has increasingly widened -- and is now at its highest point of divergence since the very early 20th century. This is dangerous for all for all sorts of reasons, including its ill effects on education.

I would begin to reform the situation with a wholesale reform of the nation’s tax policy in the hopes of promoting a more equitable distribution of wealth. This, of course, would take a long time before it manifested itself in educational attainment, because of the lag time involved but reductions in poverty lead to more stable homes and students better prepared to succeed.

Too often education policy wonks point to the amount of spending per pupil as a meaningful statistic. I argue this figure is most often a misleading statistical artifice because it doesn’t address the root problem -- that poverty creates chronic instability and other less than desirable outcomes. Children, in those circumstances, have the odds stacked again them and find it difficult to learn.

I would also suggest that the formula for funding schools in many communities needs to be reworked, especially in those communities that are reliant on property taxes to fund education. This leads to gross inequalities in opportunity, inside and outside the classroom, in many public schools.

Q: You mention funding schools differently as an answer. I am not sure there is a causal relationship between funding and academic learning though, when you look at money spent per student in non-public schools. For example, Catholic schools spend approximately half of what is spent on public school students, yet achieve higher levels of academic success. Critics of this fact usually counter with the fact that Catholic school students probably come from more stable home environments. So, doesn't it all come back to the environment where these children are raised? In other words, is education reform (economic or pedagogic) actually the least important element in increasing academic performance in today's low-performing students?

Dr. Renfro: I tend to agree with your analysis. I think that there are many important variables that contribute to students’ learning outcomes. Moreover, I generally think that the environment in which children are raised is, by far, the most important. Ceteris paribus, however, levels of school funding still matter, particularly as access to the arts and extracurricular activities often hinges on funding levels. I think pedagogy matters too but is not as important a causal factor as socioeconomic status.

Q: For the sake of argument, let's assume that economic inequality is an inescapable fact in America. Knowing that our system helps poor students achieve at a higher level than other systems from across the globe, do you see any way to improve their education from a strictly educational standpoint? Are there any innovative programs or models that might help regardless of their economic circumstances?

Dr. Renfro: Economic inequality is inescapable, in America and elsewhere. I’m not arguing in favor of absolute equality but rather a more sensible and balanced approach that seeks to prevent gross discrepancies in wealth. Furthermore, I believe that there needs to be a minimum level of economic sustenance. For example, children without proper nutrition and health-care are handicapped and do not learn as readily as their better fed and healthier counterparts.

From the standpoint of education policy, I think a number of reforms are in order. We need to do a better job of attracting and training teachers. This means that we need to pay teachers more, help them with professional development, and generally make teaching a viable career for talented young individuals.

I also believe that we generally need to alter the balance of teacher training between pedagogy and subject matter expertise. Many states have licensure requirements mandating far too much pedagogy training that too often comes at the expense of subject matter training. If we can attract bright young people into teaching and they have a passion for literature, for example, their training should stoke their passion for that discipline. Individuals in all careers perform best when they are happy and engaged. If we can make teachers happy and engaged, their classroom performance will increase.

We also need to recognize that effective teaching has its limits. It seems to me that, as of late, too many individuals are blaming teachers for low level of educational attainment. This seems to minimize the role of issues like poverty and parenting.

I also believe that teachers needs more individual freedom to do what they do best -- teach and mentor. Too often teachers are forced to teach to standardized tests. I believe that many of these tests are fruitless exercises because they don’t measure the most important marker of success, student achievement after leaving school. I think many schools have come to emphasize and embrace an educational philosophy that is geared at producing students who do well on generic tests. This often comes at the expense of the sort of skills that are often found in the general liberal arts, i.e., critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving, etc.

Although this slate of reforms is mostly aimed at higher education, I’m intrigued by the Lumina Foundation’s plans for skills-based education ( I think this is really at the heart of what educators should strive to do -- teach people to think critically and have the capacity to integrate new information readily so they can flourish in any number of careers.

Q: The article you linked to from The Chronicle of Higher Education touches on transforming assessment. I recently had a conversation with a professor about which journalism student would be more likely to get a job writing for, say, Time Magazine: A student with a Master's degree in journalism or a student with a global affairs blog that was read by thousands of people each week. Do you think we put too much emphasis on a degree with finite requirements at the expense of a dynamic portfolio of authentic work?

Dr. Renfro: I think it’s very hard to generalize across all disciplines. In some fields, like health science or accounting, finite degrees are important in terms of necessary licensure requirements and practical skills. In other fields, I think it matters less. I’m generally wedded to the old notion of liberal arts. I firmly believe that teaching folks how to think, read, speak, argue, and find information is the best form of education.

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