An Interview with Neal McCluskey – Do the PISA results Indicate anything?

Dec 4, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Neal, the PISA results are now out, and of course some people are whining and wailing. But in the big scheme of things, is the U.S. with it’s population really doing that poorly?

Given the amount of money that we spend per-pupil on elementary and secondary education – more than almost any other country – and our relative wealth, you would expect better test scores. Of course, that assumes that spending has a strong correlation with outcomes, which it doesn’t. What that suggests, then, is we should either decrease spending, or use what we spend much more efficiently. That said, we shouldn’t take the scores on one test, or even several tests, as incontrovertible evidence of educational success or failure. Education is about much more than things that are easily tested.

2) Who is doing well, and can you hypothesize why?

As usual, East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea are top finishers. A great deal of research suggests why: they have cultures heavily geared toward academic achievement and examinations. In contrast, American culture tends to place academic achievement much lower, and things like creativity and athletics much higher, on kids’ priority lists.

3) Now, everybody points to Finland and their success…..but is their teacher training program more rigorous? Or their society more homogeneous?

Teacher training, demographics – these are two among myriad variables that can affect achievement, and the PISA scores alone don’t enable us to isolate them. What is interesting about Finland is that for the last few years, based almost exclusively on 2009 PISA results, lots of people have obsessed over making our education system more like Finland’s. However, their scores dropped significantly in the latest exam, especially in mathematics. That helps illustrate a crucial point: Using a year or two of data on a single test, and focusing on one or even a handful of countries, is a bad way to make policy. Far too many variables are at work to make such superficial analysis useful.

4) Are there really comparable nations to the U.S. to compare us to? ( I mean after all, we ARE different than South Korea )

There are probably useful things we can learn from looking at any and all countries. But no two countries are exactly alike, and many are very different. South Korea is demographically quite different than the United States. Liechtenstein – another top performer – has only 37,000 people. Canada has no federal-level department of education. All of these things are variables that need to be examined and controlled to determine what factors cause better or worse outcomes.

5) Some people will point to the PISA results and indicate the need to shove Common Core down our throats. Are they serious or just worried about making money?

I think for the most part its supporters really think the Common Core will help. Some because they think we need national standards. Other because they think the Core is of high quality (and is aligned with the kind of thing PISA tests). But good intentions mustn’t trump quality analysis, and anyone who just points to these PISA results – or offers superficial statements like “all countries that beat us have national standards” – isn’t employing quality analysis. (For what it’s worth, in most exams, almost all the countries that have done worse than we have have had national standards.)

6) I like your term “ cherry picking “ data to prove some point- what are the strengths of the U.S. and what are the weaknesses?

Determining strengths and weaknesses is tough, because a lot depends on what you think should be the end result of education. If it’s high test scores, we don’t do so well. If it is economic vitality, we typically haven’t done too badly. If it is personal fulfillment, again I don’t think we’ve done too poorly. If it is test-points-per-dollar, yikes!

7) Neal, I know of no other nation that does as much to assist kids with exceptionalities. Am I off on this and does this have an impact?

Kids with disabilities are incorporated in the PISA testing depending on the nature and extent of their disabilities. I don’t think that exclusion rates have a big impact on overall scores. I also don’t know whether we do a better job with these populations or not, and am not sure if PISA has a breakdown for them. It’s not an area I’ve explored in depth.

8) Neal, can you discuss what is called or referred to as “ national culture “ ( I have been to Finland six times and Korea once- and I feel I have a perspective-) but let’s hear your views on this.

That’s very broad, and I can really only speak knowledgeably about education. But it is quite clear from research that Americans care a lot more about sports and after-school work – and a lot less about academics – than most students who come here for high school exchange programs. East Asian nations, for the most part, also emphasize academic achievement much more than we do, and probably more than most other non-East Asian nations. Historically, a lot of the differences seem to be based in modes by which people progressed economically and socially – think frontier in America, government employment in China – but, alas, culture is a very complicated and somewhat nebulous thing. It is difficult, and dangerous, to generalize too much.

9) What have I neglected to ask ?

I think you got it!

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