Since the year 2000 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has administered the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to 15 year olds around the world. The exam provides comparative  performance data among 80 countries in reading, mathematics, and science.  “The results have informed education policy discussions at the national and global levels.” 

Unfortunately, the quality of American education appears not to have benefited from these decades-long testing and policy discussions.  This apparent mediocre performance of US students compared to their international counterparts  is disheartening. The best that American students have fared in the PISA ranking is average. 

According to Statista, students from 79 countries took the latest exam in 2018.  The director of the OECD  explains: “Education is key to helping young people navigate today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world . . . ”  The top ranked countries were China, Singapore, and Estonia, followed by Japan, South Korea, and Canada. The US ranked 25th in all three subjects. Even the National Education Association conceded  that the small numerical increase for American students was statistically insignificant. 

What accounts for this apparent lack of progress?  The Economic Policy Institute  has argued that the country averages are themselves not meaningful. The primary reason is  that the results should be interpreted only after being normalized for social class.  But even the EPI states (referring to the top performing countries in the 2009 test),

Although controlling for social class distribution would narrow the difference in average scores between countries and the United States, it would not eliminate it.” (EPI)

While the reason(s) for the static average performance by US students on the PISA test might be complex, much of the focus has been on teacher quality .  A Stanford University analysis (eepa) suggests that factors such as teacher education, licensing, hiring, and professional development make an important contribution to teacher effectiveness. 

In this regard Singapore, whose students consistently rank at the top of the international tests, might be a model to study.  Singapore has a teacher compensation model that is comparable with other professions.  This higher pay scale, however,  is accompanied by a much more stringent teacher selection process. The entry quality assessment  is so grueling that only one in eight applicants survives it.  And those who successfully enter the teacher profession can expect to be reviewed annually against a 16 point standard. Furthermore, all of this rigor is accompanied by access to significant career development opportunities.

Contrast this with the 2013  National Council on Teacher Quality , which reported that future US teachers were inadequately prepared, a fact that did not go unnoticed by then Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Whatever the reason for teacher ineffectiveness, its  economic consequences are astounding:

“A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes. Alternatively, replacing the bottom 5–8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion. “

Since PISA’s inception, thousands of scholarly research papers have touched upon our mediocre international ranking.  As can be deduced in the most recent test results,  American children are still waiting for these findings to trickle down to their classroom. 

As disheartening as our lack of improvement in the PISA test ranks may be, the  call  for continued standardized testing at the national and international level (especially in this pandemic environment) may at least provide a modicum of insight into our educational system effectiveness.