Mackay: PISA Results Show Need for Educational ‘Reset’

At a time when the nation’s economic future depends on the knowledge and skills of its workforce, the results of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—which illustrate that the U.S. performance remains well behind that of many other countries—show the need for a “reset” of the U.S. education system, said Anthony Mackay, the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“The U.S. is off the pace set by the current world leaders,” Mackay said. “We cannot be satisfied with the modest gains we made in reading and science. The time for a reset to the U.S. education system is now.”

“The 2018 PISA results show again that U.S. high school students are failing to catch up with their counterparts in industrialized countries. Although the U.S. performed above the OECD average in reading and science, U.S. students performed below average in mathematics—and below the performance of students in 30 other countries in that subject.”

Even more troubling, the gap between the U.S. and top-performing countries is large. Students in the four Chinese provinces that took the assessment—Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, which represent a population of 184 million, half of that of the United States—performed almost four grade levels ahead of U.S. students in mathematics.

“China is now poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. It is hard to see how the United States can compete with a far larger country that has a much better educated workforce that charges much less than we do for labor. Increasing unemployment, ever lower wages and growing political instability will be the inevitable result if we do not greatly improve the education of our young people,” said Marc Tucker, founder and distinguished senior fellow at NCEE.

The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in the U.S. is also larger than that in top-performing countries. In the U.S., advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged students in reading by 99 points in 2018, compared with 59 points in Hong Kong, 61 points in Estonia and 68 points in Canada.

And the gap between high-performing and low-performing students has increased since 2015 in both mathematics and reading, largely because high performers’ scores increased while those of low performers remained flat. The recently released results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a similar widening of the performance gap. This is particularly troubling, noted Mackay, because the proportion of disadvantaged students in the U.S. is increasing.

Despite these challenging findings, the PISA results can also point to a solution, Mackay said. NCEE has been studying the policies and practices of the top-performing countries and U.S. states for three decades and has identified a set of principles that U.S. states can use in redesigning their educational systems.

NCEE’s research shows that each of the top performers have developed education systems with a number of common characteristics:

  • Good access to high-quality early childhood education and care
  • First-class teachers and school leaders
  • Powerful, well-designed instructional systems
  • Strong supports for students that need them the most
  • Equitable methods of financing schools
  • Strong and fair systems of oversight and accountability

Recently the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (known as the Kirwan Commission) created its blueprint for a redesign of the Maryland education system. The Commission’s design drew heavily on NCEE’s research on the education system designs of the countries that lead the PISA league tables. Last year, the state legislature adopted the Kirwan recommendations and provided almost $1 billion to begin implementing the 10-year plan.

It is simply unacceptable that students in a growing number of countries leave high school significantly ahead of American students. A great deal depends on catching up quickly.