The PISA 2015 results show no meaningful change in the performance of U.S. students since 2012 in science and reading and a decline in mathematics.  There would appear to be no story here, but that is not the case.

pisabetterthanusA Sputnik Moment?

Whereas mainland China was represented in the last PISA assessment only by Shanghai, it includes this time three other Chinese provinces in addition to Shanghai. Three years ago, many observers cautioned the American public and policy makers not to draw any conclusions about China as whole from Shanghai’s top ranking in the last administration of the PISA survey, assuming that Shanghai was far ahead of the other provinces in elementary and secondary education. But that is not what the data show.

The scores for all four Chinese provinces are merged.  The average score for all four provinces places China near the very top of the global rankings in mathematics and science.  Twenty four of the 70 participating jurisdictions had higher average scores than the U.S. in science, 38 had higher average scores in mathematics. The four provinces in China that participated have a total population of 226 million people, compared to the U.S. population of 319 million.  But the high school students in these provinces are grade levels ahead of their American counterparts in the core STEM subjects, which gives the Chinese an enormous advantage in science, mathematics and engineering, which are widely expected to be the most important drivers of both economic and military prowess in the years ahead.

The average GDP per capita in these four Chinese provinces is $14,647; the average GDP per capita in the U.S. is $53,041. Thus, China is still a developing country  and, though wages have been rising quickly in recent years, still charges much less for its labor than the advanced industrial countries.  What is striking about this PISA report is that it shows clearly that China has both a low-wage structure and, at the same time, one of the best education systems in the world, which makes it a formidable competitor in both the economic and military realms.  In 1957, the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union forced the United States to respond with an enormous national investment in science and mathematics education.  This challenge, from China, seems no less important.

Immigration and Education

Immigration may be the single most important issue in global politics today.  Note that Canada continues to perform among the top ten countries on the PISA league tables.  What’s the connection to education?  According to OECD data, second generation immigrants in Canada are the best-educated in the OECD.  Second generation immigrants in the United States are the worst educated.

Opposition to immigration may have tipped the recent presidential election to Donald Trump in the United States, but in Canada the polls show that Canadians are very proud of their immigration policy and of their openness to immigrants.  It is very likely that the superior performance of second generation students in Canadian schools is due to two things: an immigration policy that is biased toward highly skilled immigrants, rather than extended family members, as in the United States, on the one hand, and, on the other, a very strong commitment to multicultural programming in their public schools.  It is worth considering the possibility that this combination of immigration policy and education policy might hold the key to the future of our democracies, at least in the short term.  My thanks to former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall for bringing these ideas to my attention.

Should other American states be copying Massachusetts?

One piece of good news for the U.S. is the performance of students in Massachusetts, who continued to perform well against our international competitors and improved considerably since the last PISA administration. Only students in Singapore performed significantly better than Massachusetts students in science. In reading, Singapore and Massachusetts tied for the top spot. The state is clearly among the world’s top performers in reading and science.   But there are three important caveats here.

First, Massachusetts is very wealthy.  Its GDP per capita in 2015 was nearly 70,000.  The four provinces in China that participated in the 2015 PISA survey, which performed just as well as Massachusetts in science and better in mathematics, have an average GDP per capita of less than $15,000.

Consider also that Massachusetts ranks number one in the country in the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree and number one in the percentage with an advanced degree.  The education of parents is the single most important predictor of student performance.  This combination of wealth and parental levels of education should lead us to expect that Massachusetts would be a world leader in student performance.

Third, though Massachusetts does very, very well in reading and science, it does not do so well in mathematics.  Eleven countries, including the four provinces in China, outperformed the state in that subject.

American states have a lot to learn from Massachusetts, which not only does very well on PISA but outperforms all other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) by a wide margin.  But states that are not as wealthy and which do not have parents with so much education and which want to do better on mathematics and greatly improve outcomes for disadvantaged children should look elsewhere in the world as well, because the PISA league tables include many countries that have done as well or better for less money with a smaller supply of highly educated parents.

US Rankings on PISA 2000-2015

Year of AssessmentCountries TestedReadingMathScience