PISA Panic Is the Wrong Push for School Improvement


Make no mistake, the results of the latest PISA tests, providing international comparisons of K–12 education proficiency, are not great for the United States. But equally important, they aren’t terrible either, though you wouldn’t know that from the auto-reflexive lament of U.S. leaders about what a lousy education system they lead.

“Average” does not equal abysmal, but that is what you would think based on the quotes in most press reports highlighting the United States’ ranking among its international peers. According to the new PISA results (tests administered to 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science), the United States was 17th out of 65 nations in overall reading performance, 31st in mathematics, and 23rd in science. In other words, and as the PISA results spell out, the U.S. performance is average as compared to other countries in reading and science and slightly below average in math.

Even taking into account the impressive performance of new PISA test-taker, Shanghai, a Chinese city of 20 million that outperformed every other country in all three categories, the United States’ rankings are hardly the “Sputnik” moment that President Obama and Chester Finn think (hope?) it is—a galvanizing shock to the U.S. psyche that preys on their worst fears about a loss of national security to a communist competitor.

Maybe it is the ritualistic howl of failure from policymakers that tells us more about them and the quality of the schools than any test results. What does it say about leaders who rely on lurching from one crisis to the next in order to marshal public opinion in support of their reform plans?

What does it say about the education of the U.S. public that reason and logic are no match for hysteria and panic as motivating appeals to improve their children’s schools?

There is room and a need for improvement, to be sure, but U.S. students and teachers didn’t fail PISA. The same cannot be said of official reaction to the results.