What We’ve Learned from the PISA Results (and You Should Too)!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe recently released Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have provided educators and politicians with new student performance data to discuss and analyze. The international assessment is designed to measure 15-year-old students’ reading, math, and science literacy. Overall, the United States results were flat, with little improvement from previous PISA results data. Out of 34 OECD countries, US students ranked 26th in math, 17th in reading, and 21st in science.

What can we learn from these assessments and recent results? One of the things we can do is look closely at nations who perform well, those that continue to advance, and successful states, schools and students within our own country. In a recent article from the Houston Chronicle titled Can’t We Do Better, author and columnist Thomas Friedman reminds us that in a globally competitive world, what our students need to succeed is changing. “In today’s hyper-connected world without walls…the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs.” In fact, as the digital divide continues to decrease, “futurist Marina Gorbis argues, the big divide will be ‘the motivational divide’ – who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn.”

So what are the highest performing nations and schools doing to foster the innovative and critical thinking necessary for success? According to the NEA, one of the common features is a focus on consistent standards: “top-ranked countries have instructional systems driven by strong standards that foster key skills such as critical thinking.” The Common Core Standards will provide those high standards, focused on critical thinking, for all students in states who have adopted them.

Teachers Are a Key Factor in PISA Results

In addition to clear standards, words that resonated with me in my reading about successful PISA results were ownership, collaboration, empowerment, and professional development. Andreas Schleicher, the Deputy Director for Education and Skills who manages PISA, is quoted in Friedman’s article with his analysis that “the highest performing PISA schools all have ‘ownership’ cultures—a high degree of professional autonomy for teachers … where teachers get to participate in shaping standards and curriculum and have ample time for continuous professional development.” How well do our current systems support teacher autonomy? Is ample time for continuous professional development seen as a priority on the school system calendars? Investing in successful and effective teachers seems to be a key ingredient, but it requires quality collaborative professional time and job-embedded support that I fear many teachers in our systems do not experience.

The article The PISA Puzzle, posted on slate.com, highlighted the fact that “the OECD found that school systems with greater teacher leadership opportunities, like Canada’s, outperform those like ours, in which administrators and policymakers exert more top-down control over the classroom, through scripted lessons or teacher evaluation systems that heavily weigh student test scores.” If we are striving to have students be prepared for a competitive global economy that will require innovation and critical thinking, we need teachers who exhibit those same skills in their own profession. Empowering teachers as leaders and professionals with quality professional development, coaching, and opportunities to take ownership over the teaching and learning in their buildings is a big piece of the puzzle.

As systems and schools transition to the Common Core standards and prepare for new assessments within the United States, they may benefit from considering the lessons learned from high performing nations on the PISA test. While everyone is quick to say that professional development is important for teachers, are we really providing the type of ownership and capacity building that will help our teachers ensure students succeed? Hopefully with a focus on a common set of standards combined with effective professional development that supports teacher empowerment and a culture of ownership, we will be able to see some gains on the 2015 PISA. If we are able to keep pace with other high performing nations, it will demonstrate that the US education system can truly prepare students to be successful in the complex and global world in which we live.

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