What PISA Tells Us About American Education Reform

December 06, 2013

By Casey Given

On Monday, test scores for the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released to great disappointment by the American education community. Operated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA is an international standardized test taken every three years by a random selection of 510,000 15-year-olds to compare countries’ educational achievement in math, science, and reading.

Unfortunately, the United States didn’t fare too well. As my colleague Wesley Coopersmith explains at Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s new blog, Embrace Economic Freedom:

In math, the United States is currently rated 36th out of 65 countries having dropped 5 spots since 2009. In science, the United States is currently rated 28th out of 65 countries having also dropped 5 spots since 2009. In reading, the United States is currently rated 24th out of 65 countries having dropped 7 spots since 2009.

Sadly, these rankings are unsurprising given the abysmal history of American public education. However, two important lessons can still be drawn from this sad case of the same old same old.

First, countries cannot spend themselves into academic success. I’ve written about the lack of correlation between school spending and student outcomes before, but the PISA report powerfully emphasizes the point. While the U.S. doesn’t break the top ten on any academic subject, it ranks fifth in educational expenditures at a whopping $115,000 per student. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more. Countries that outperform the United States spend drastically less.

In fact, PISA itself admits that “higher expenditure on education does not guarantee better student performance” in a February 2012 report. This point is critical to remember because teachers unions, as self-interested actors, will naturally demand to throw more money at the problem. We saw this in Colorado last month with a misguided ballot initiative to raise taxes for education, and we will inevitably will see similar efforts in the future.

Second, incentives matter for teachers. As the February 2012 report also points out, “Successful school systems in high-income economies tend to prioritize the quality of teachers.” Fortunately in the United States, a movement to competitively pay teachers according to their quality of instruction is slowly gaining steam. Merit pay promises to revolutionize public education by rewarding good teachers for their excellence while exposing poor ones.

Another important incentive that this year’s PISA scores highlight is curricular freedom. As many recent articles have pointed out, top-performing countries like China and Singapore not only pay good teachers well, they trust them too. Teachers in Europe and Asia are given great freedom to choose their own textbooks, develop their own lesson plans, and experiment with different pedagogical techniques in ways that American educators can only dream of. Instead, American teachers are subject to a litany of standards and tests, especially in the age of Common Core, that leave little room for actual learning.

School reformers are all too familiar with the positive effects educational freedom has on student performance when parents are given school choice. Teacher autonomy is the other side of this coin. By trusting teachers to run their classroom yet holding them accountable to their students’ performance, educational freedom can climb to new heights in the United States.

You can read the full report of the PISA scores here, and learn more about AFP and AFPF’s positions on education reform in a January 2012 Foundation report here.

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