In the education sector today sounds like a never-ending ad for Little Caesar’s….PISA PISA…
The new PISA results are out. Usual suspects saying the usual things. Few things to keep in mind.
- Bottom line: The sky is not falling, but the ceiling may be closing in on us some. But we don’t need international comparisons to tell us we have serious educational problems here.
- These results matter, but not as much or as little as various combatants would have you believe. The best thing to look at is the patterns because as a rule any precision will be false precision given the limitations of the assessments. And the pattern seems to be that we’re holding steady but other countries are getting their educational acts together. Over time that’s a problem for the United States in a globalized economy. We’re making a big bet that our political, immigration, and economic system can overcome the drag of a subpar education system. That worked in the 20th Century but may not be a smart bet in this one.
- International comparisons are fraught with loose claims. In particular, correlation does not equal causation. So beware when someone points to a single element of country X and says that’s why they are doing well. Context matters, including a country’s political, policy, economic, and social context. That doesn’t mean there is not plenty to learn from other countries, there is (just as there is plenty to learn from other sectors and institutions) but we should respect the limits of comparisons. Likewise, consider how various ideas and systemic features would fit with our educational system and values- for instance we heavily value giving students second chances.
- When someone tells you that we’d be doing great on these tests except for all the poor kids who pull the average down, remind them that it’s not entirely correct but it’s also largely irrelevant: Those poor kids do live here, are being educated (or not) here. It’s important to disaggregate the data for analytical purposes but as a practical matter of making policy today their lives are not a thought experiment or debating point.
- If you want to obsess about this issue read Amanda Ripley’s book instead.