Lessons from abroad: What can PISA teach us?

On the surface, students in Shanghai don't have a lot in common with those in Helsinki. Finnish students spend fewer hours in the classroom than students in most other countries, while students in Shanghai are in class so much that one national policy document actually called for learning time to be reduced. Classes in China follow a rigorous curriculum; by contrast, Finnish high school students pursue individual study plans at their own pace.


But students in these countries have one thing in common: When it comes to standardized tests, they outperform kids in the U.S.

PISA, or the Programme for International Student Assessment, was given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries in 2009, and Shanghai students topped the results in all three categories tested: reading, math and science. Other top-scoring countries included Korea, Finland and Singapore. Absent from the top of the list was the United States, which had average scores in reading and science and below average scores in math.

While a test ranking countries academically might seem to be a good way to find out what works when it comes to education, if there's one thing PISA is good at, it's showing what doesn't matter much in crafting a top-notch education system. Longer school years? Not in Finland. More education spending? The U.S. outspent all of the top-scoring countries. Smaller class sizes? The average size in China is 50 students.

So what can you learn from PISA?

As it turns out, the best school systems worldwide share an investment in human resources, both for students and teachers.

"The best school systems became great after undergoing a series of crucial changes," author Amanda Ripley concluded after interviewing PISA architect Andreas Schleicher about his findings. "They made their teacher-training schools much more rigorous and selective; they put developing high-quality principals and teachers above efforts like reducing class size or equipping sports teams."

Another key finding from PISA? Countries that score well overall are the countries where disadvantaged students perform well--not something the United States is particularly good at.

The United States joined countries such as Turkey, Peru, Panama and Bulgaria as places where income inequality was large, and researchers also found a higher-than-average relationship between test performance and socio-economic background.

Should PISA results concern you?

PISA also found that the variation in test scores within any given country far exceeded variation across countries. In other words, the score difference between the highest and lowest performing students in the United States is far more significant--and potentially far more troublesome--than the score difference between the U.S. and China.

PISA found that countries with comparable levels of income inequality had widely varying levels of performance among disadvantaged students on the test, suggesting that educational equality can be achieved even when income equality is not present. However, to achieve that equality, school systems must be committed to boosting low-performing students, not just achieving excellence at the highest levels.

"In the most successful education systems, the political and social leaders have persuaded their citizens to make the choices needed to show that they value education more than other things," the report stated. "But placing a high value on education will get a country only so far if the teachers, parents and citizens of that country believe that only some subset of the nation's children can or need to achieve world class standards."

Check out our infographic, U.S. vs. Them to learn more about the PISA findings.

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