Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Educational world abuzz about PISA tests: US students remain stagnant

Educators and pundits all over the United States are abuzz about the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment (cuddly known as PISA) which scores 15-year-old students in 65 countries in math, reading, science and other topics. The students are chosen at random, and the tests are unique because they're not tied to any curriculum. In other words, it's what children really know and how they can apply their knowledge to the real world.

For more information about the test, click here.

The United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading. The rankings have not budged much in a decade. 

Students in Shanghai-China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea scored the highest in all three subjects. Switzerland and the Netherland also ranked near the top.

The results have already prompted a wave of commentaries from education analysts and lobbyists. We must spend more in early childhood education if the United States is going to move forward, some say. Others praise the advent of the Common Core Standards as a possible way for the United States to break out of the pack and move up in the educational ladder.

I'd like to point to a nifty graph I found from Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker, who concludes that, given the level of poverty in the United States, we're actually not doing that badly. You can find the graph here

But Baker's graph also reminded me of a recent column by Castroville teacher and Herald Columnist Paul Karrer. In his column, Karrer takes issue with a New York Times writer Frank Bruni, who says students in the United States are coddled and that's the reason why they perform poorly compared to other countries. Bruni says the Common Core Standards will mean nothing if students are not challenged to do more.

Karrer responds with the realities of being in a classroom and teaching children with a myriad of problems that affect their learning: broken homes, medical conditions, you name it. Education happens best when children live in environments conductive to learning. And if they come to school with a hungry stomach or worried about whether their families will have a place to live next month, chances are their minds will not be ready to do math.

About one fifth of children in the United States live below 50 percent of median income. Only Turkey, Chile and Mexico have higher share of children living in poverty among ranked countries. Ironically, the United States is the sixth largest economy in the world, based on per capita income. But that income is not being used to reach everyone -- didn't lawmakers just last week cut foodstamps program? Half of the people who receive foodstamps are children, by the way.

People in positions of power refuse to invest in human capital, and as long as investment remains stagnant, education pundits should not expect U.S. students to improve achievement in international rankings, no matter how many educational reforms we undergo. 

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