From the Editor

PISA Results Reported

Results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released this week. PISA is administered every three years, comparing outcomes for 15-year old students on measures of reading literacy, mathematics and science. PISA is designed to both assess student mastery of the content areas and their ability to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired to the demands of the 21st century world. The 2009 PISA, administered to a half million students in more than 70 countries, focused on reading literacy among 15-year olds and for the first time tested students' ability to manage digital information. Mathematics and science were also assessed.

U.S. Students scored 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math. The reading and science scores were roughly equal to the overall average PISA scores, while the math score was statistically significantly below the average PISA score.  Korea and Finland top the latest PISA survey of reading literacy, with the next strongest performances from Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.

There's been a lot of comment and hand wringing over these results. Several things are going on. American students are actually holding their own. Commenting on the PISA scores, the National Science Teachers Association says that it is "cautiously optimistic in that average science scores are up from 2006," especially in light of the limited investment that has been made in training and retaining science teachers. (I might also point out that under NCLB's accountability demands, many of the 15-year olds tested had fairly limited instruction in science until they reached middle school, where their teachers then had to play catch up.) It is also true that the competitive landscape has changed a lot over the last 19 to 15 years, with a number of other nations on the fast track to achieving high order educational results for nearly all their students.

I'm glad to see the PISA comparisons getting serious consideration. There's been a tendency to dismiss them as not comparable, but many of those arguments no longer hold water. For example, American commentators have often pointed out that all children in America attend school, compared to nations that educated only a small, chosen number of students. The U.S. has the third lowest percentage of 15-year olds enrolled (82%), after Mexico and Turkey. Similarly, many countries have equal or higher proportions of immigrant students and non-native speakers of the local language as does the United States and many of these countries are outperforming the U.S. and show a more moderate relationship between socioeconomic background and learning outcomes.  

There is an interesting new report, "Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States" that was released at the same time as the PISA results. The result of a collaborative effort between the OECD, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) in Washington, the report provides a more detailed analysis of the policies and practices of those education systems that are advancing rapidly. It draws lessons from the education systems of a selection of top-scoring and rapidly improving countries and relates these lessons to the education reform agenda in the United States. There's a lot to be learned from what other nation's educational systems are doing. Certainly there are cultural and organizational differences that have to be considered, but in many ways we are more alike than different. I think you'll find it interesting reading.