PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid’
Editor’s Note: This is an update of a previous post on the relationship between PISA scores and poverty. Although these figures relate to 2009 scores, little has changed. The U.S. is still in the middle of the pack when compared to other participating nations. Walt Gardner of Education Week and Diane Ravitch have provided similar analysis of more recent PISA scores.
PISA results have provided ample fodder for public school bashers and doomsayers who further their own philosophies and agendas by painting all public schools as failing. For whatever reason, the pundits, many of whom have had little or no actual exposure to public schools, refuse to paint an accurate picture of the state of education.
A closer look at the data tells a different story. Most notable is the relationship between PISA scores in terms of individual American schools and poverty. While the overall PISA rankings ignore such differences in the tested schools, when groupings based on the rate of free and reduced lunch are created, a direct relationship is established.
|Free and Reduced Meal Rate||PISA Score|
|Schools with < 10%||551|
|Schools with 10-24.9%||527|
|Schools with 25-49.9%||502|
|Schools with 49.9-74.9%||471|
|Schools with >75%||446|
With strong evidence that increased poverty results in lower PISA scores the next question to be asked is what are the poverty rates of the countries being tested? (Listed below are the countries that were tested by PISA along with available poverty rates. Some nations like Korea do not report poverty rates.)
|Country||Poverty Rate||PISA Score|
Leveling the playing field
A more accurate assessment of the performance of U.S. students would be obtained by comparing the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.
Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.
|Country||Poverty Rate||PISA Score|
In the next category (10-24.9%) the U.S. average of 527 placed first out of the ten comparable nations.
|Country||Poverty Rate||PISA Score|
For the remaining U.S. schools, their poverty rates over 25% far exceed any other country tested. However, when the U.S. average of 502 for poverty rates between 25-49.9% is compared with other countries it is still in the upper half of the scores.
The results of the latest PISA testing should raise serious concerns. However, the overall ranking of 14th in reading is not the reason to be concerned. The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results. The PISA results point out that the U.S. is not alone in facing the challenge of raising the performance of disadvantaged students.
|U.S. % Poverty||Other Countries||PISA Score|
|U.S. (over 75%)||446|
Additional observations from PISA results:
- Shanghai, China topped the list with 556 but is not included in this analysis because Shanghai is a city not a country and because only 35% of Chinese students ever enter high school and because “when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.”
- Of all the nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the largest number of students living in poverty–21.7%. The next closest nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New Zealand have poverty rates that are 75% of ours.
- U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one country in the world.
- U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland.
- U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.
- U.S. students in schools with greater than 50% poverty are near the bottom.
- There were other surprises. Germany with less than half our poverty, scored below the U.S. as did France with less than a third our poverty and Sweden with a low 3.6% poverty rate.
- Having recently listened to Sir Michael Barber talk about the amazing progress of the reforms in the United Kingdom, I was absolutely shocked to see that the UK, with 25% less poverty, scored below the U.S. average.
The Real Meaning of PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid
If the so-called experts would have honestly and responsibly reported the PISA results, we might now be on the road to responsible school improvement instead continuing down the road of “reform de jour.”
President Bill Clinton is famous for his campaign slogan, “It’s the economy stupid!” When it comes to student achievement and school improvement, it’s poverty not stupid! Researchers report that perhaps the only true linear relationship in the social sciences is the relationship between poverty and student performance. While there is no relationship between poverty and ability, the relationship between poverty and achievement is almost foolproof. To deny that poverty is a factor to be overcome as opposed to an excuse is to deny the reality that all educators, human services workers, law enforcement officers, medical professionals and religious clergy know and have known for years.
PISA reports average scores. The problem is that the U.S. is not average. While the U.S. is the top country in global competitiveness, we also have the highest percentage of students living in poverty and, regretfully, poverty impacts test scores.
The Bottom Line
School improvement is not an event. It is an ongoing process that has no end. As a principal, parents and community members would repeatedly ask me, “When can we stop our comprehensive school-wide literacy initiative? I would answer, “We will stop emphasizing reading, writing, thinking and speaking when our parents repeatedly complain that their children are reading too fast with comprehension that is too high and when our students’ writing skills are so superior that they are regularly winning Pulitzers and other literary awards.” Smiles would erupt throughout the audience. They got it. They understood that literacy skills can always be improved and so can our schools.
There are three compelling reasons why we must improve our schools:
We have a moral and ethical obligation to provide every student with the best education, the kind of education that we would want for our own children.
In a knowledge economy, the country with the best-educated populace will have the highest standard of living.
Every dropout as well as every graduate who is not prepared to successfully complete post-secondary education and training is and will continue to be an economic and social burden on their local community and on this nation for their entire life.
The challenge of ensuring that each and every student is a life-long learner prepared to contribute in a global community is daunting enough. We don’t need more hyperbole, particularly from those education insiders who should know better. For those of us who are deeply committed to improving the performance of every student, this rhetoric is counterproductive because it seriously erodes our ability to hire teachers, obtain resources, and gain the confidence and support of our communities.
We count on our leaders to provide focus and direction. Sadly, our education leaders don’t trust us enough to tell us the truth. The problem is that we will never solve a problem that our leaders refuse to admit even exists. The comparison of PISA scores by poverty clearly identifies our strengths and challenges as a nation. Our schools with less than 50% poverty) are some of the best in the world. Our extremely high-poverty schools, with over 50% poverty, are among the poorest performing internationally.
Instead of labeling all schools as failing, we must find a way to raise the performance of our students in under-resourced schools. Instead of looking to low-poverty countries like Finland for direction, we should be looking to take what we already know about educating students in high-performing, high-poverty schools like our Breakthrough Schools and scaling up their successes across the nation. We continually look for gold in other countries when, all along, we are sitting on Acres of Diamonds.