So the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment survey are in, and I gather that the U.S. did not do as well as many had hoped.

The survey is a paper test given by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, headquartered in Paris) to more than half a million students located in 65 different countries.

In a nutshell: In math, 35 countries did better than U.S. students. In reading, the U.S. came in 20th place (it was 14th place the year before); and in science, 25th place (down from 17th place in the last survey).

Predictably, lots of people have lots to say about this. For a small sample of commentary from three different sources, read on.

Statement on Release of PISA 2012 Results from National Center on Education and the Economy President and CEO Marc S. Tucker

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the OECD released the results of its international survey of student achievement – the 2012 PISA results.  Sadly, it marks a bad day for the United States.

Thirty five countries outperformed the U.S. in mathematics.  Among OECD countries in reading, the U.S. slipped from 14th place to 20th.  In science, we dropped from 17th to 25th.

Our performance is not worse than it was on earlier PISA assessments – in fact, it held rock steady through each of the successive PISA surveys.  That is the problem.  With each survey, more and more countries surpass the U.S.in these important education rankings.

Two reactions to this dismal news predominate in the U.S.  The first holds that the U.S. is not like these other countries—it is exceptional—and therefore it is unreasonable to compare us with anyone else.  The second holds that none of the data matter anyhow, because our country’s economic performance has exceeded that of our competitors year in and year out and will continue to do so, irrespective of our education performance or lack of it.  There is no evidence to support either of these propositions.

Many allege that one cannot compare the U.S. with other countries because the U.S. is far more diverse than they are.  But the PISA data show that five countries in the survey have a higher proportion of immigrants in their student population, and some of these outperform the U.S.  Many also allege that one cannot compare the U.S. to top performers because the U.S. has such a high proportion of poor children among its students.  But the PISA data show that the share of students in U.S. schools who are disadvantaged is about average for the countries in the survey.  Others say that the U.S. is unique because in that it educates everyone and the countries listed among the top performers only educate their elite.  In fact, the dropout rate in our high schools is around 25 percent, while some of the top performers are graduating close to 90 percent of the students who enter their high schools.  It is they who are educating everyone.  And so it goes, excuse after excuse, none of them backed up by solid data.

But what about the charge that none of it matters because the U.S. has and always will have a superior economy, through thick and thin?  It is true that the American economy is recovering faster than that of many of our competitors.  It is also true that our stock market has been hitting new highs.  American companies are reporting record profits and enormous cash balances – and American manufacturing is on the rebound.  But the real wages of average Americans have been falling or holding steady for decades and that continues to be the case, even in the face of the recovery.  The top one percent are doing very well indeed, and the top 10 percent have no cause for complaint, but average American wages have been sinking.  As time goes by, it becomes more and more the case that what you make is a function of what you know, of the kind and quality of education you have been able to get for yourself and your children.

But that raises the question directly – what does account for the success of the leaders?  What would the United States, or states within the United States, have to do to match their performance?

The first thing they do is very simple: they carefully study the strategies, policies and practices used by the top performers, not with an eye to copying anyone, but to learn from them, to adapt the best to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs.

Second, they provide more resources to the students who are harder to educate than to the students who are easier to educate.

Third, we see that all the top performers have invested heavily in the skills of their teachers.  Some have focused on sourcing their teachers from much higher quality high school graduates, insisting that their teachers have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they will teach (including their elementary school teachers) and insisting as well on solid preparation in the craft of teaching (they do not believe in alternative routes into teaching that skip this step).  Some, most notably Shanghai, have worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

Fourth, they have all put a lot of effort into building internationally competitive academic standards, intellectually demanding curriculum and examinations built on the curriculum that are designed to measure the full range of complex thinking skills on which their standards are based.

The top performers have all found ways to give very young children and their parents a lot of support before the children first show up for school.  They pay a lot of attention to vocational education and training and to school to work transition.  Not least important they work hard to build effective systems, the parts and pieces of which are designed to support one another and rely – gasp! – on government to implement those systems well.

You can look from one end of the PISA reports to the other and find no correlation between student performance and use of market forces (charters and vouchers) in education systems.  You will find no correlation between what a country or a city spends per student and the average student achievement in that country or city.  Nor will you find any correlation between student achievement and the use of systems designed to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students based on their scores on standardized tests.  Which is to say that PISA provides no evidence whatsoever that any component of the current “education reform agenda” in the United States works, with the single exception of the Common Core, which has now come under withering attack.

It is the position of the National Center on Education and the Economy that this country will have broadly shared prosperity only if we succeed in educating all of our children to a world class standard.  The current “education reform agenda” is bankrupt.  There is no evidence that it can succeed.  It is time to embrace a very different education reform agenda, the one that has proven itself in the PISA rankings.

The National Center on Education and the Economy was created in 1988 to analyze the implications of changes in the international economy for American education, formulate an agenda for American education based on that analysis and seek wherever possible to accomplish that agenda through policy change and development of the resources educators would need to carry it out. Follow NCEE on Twitter @CtrEcon and on Facebook. 

Statement from First Five Years Fund Executive Director Kris Perry on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Scores

“Results released today from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show continued education stagnation as teenagers in the U.S. demonstrated below average achievement in math and average achievement in reading and science as compared to 65 other countries including both members and non-members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These results underscore the need for smarter, targeted federal investments in proven education strategies, such as early childhood education.

“A child’s earliest years are absolutely critical for building the foundation needed for success in school. Scientific and economic research clearly proves that high quality early childhood education equips children with the knowledge and skills they need not only to do well in school, but to obtain higher-paying jobs, rely less on social programs, and contribute more to our nation’s economy.

“Today’s results show that the average math achievement of American 15-year-olds was below the OECD average, comparable with Lithuania and Russia. Meanwhile, U.S. students had reading and science scores at the OECD average, comparable with Austria, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Norway and Portugal. In the U.S., poverty also had a much greater impact on students’ PISA performance than countries like Finland, China, Japan and Norway, which had a much lower variation in student performance based on socioeconomic status.

“It is no coincidence that the countries with the strongest PISA scores also have rapidly growing economies. Global leaders recognize that in order to continue strong economic expansion, they must invest in their youngest learners. But the U.S. trails behind almost every developed country in the world when it comes to access to high-quality preschool. In fact, countries like China and India are dramatically expanding access to preschool, reflecting growing consensus that transcends political ideologies and geographic boundaries—that skills development starts at birth and lays the foundation for achievement in school, college, career and life.

“In order to remain competitive in a complex global economy, we must address the knowledge and skills deficits that are illustrated by our nation’s lackluster PISA performance. These early deficits persist into knowledge and skill deficits during the teenage and adult years and have profound economic consequences for individuals, taxpayers and the U.S. economy. But quality early childhood programs help us prevent these deficits, especially among disadvantaged children, while providing a 7-10% return on investment to taxpayers through improved education, health, social and economic outcomes.

“Congress has recognized that we can and should be doing more to prepare our young people to succeed in the 21st century by introducing the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which focuses on the role the federal government can play in helping states and communities build quality early childhood education programs.

High quality early childhood education is key to ensuring students are prepared for the rigors of school and the realities of a 21st century workforce and is a win-win proposition for all. Voters understand this and are joining a diverse chorus of supporters including police officers, military generals and business leaders to urge stronger federal investments in early learning. According to a bipartisan poll conducted earlier this year, 70 percent of Americans support a plan to help states and local communities provide high quality early childhood education opportunities to children from birth to age five—and want Congress to act now. In light of today’s PISA scores, we call on Members of Congress from across the political aisle to co-sponsor and pass the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. It is what our country needs to maintain our place in the world as economic power and to remain competitive for generations to come.”

Statement from Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment

“The United States’ dismal scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was once again expected due to the inability of lawmakers at all levels of government to adequately embrace proven reforms to increase student achievement.

“The whole point of PISA is to transfer the griping about our low placement into action that results in improving America’s education system; examining solutions that incorporate choice and accountability are paramount.

“The 2012 PISA scores of US students actually decreased in all three subject areas from 2009, with 18 education systems scoring higher in math, science and reading. This drop represents not only a threat to our economic competitiveness but also demonstrates that the system as it has been functioning for decades is no longer viable.

“As is the case with any release of test scores and other indicators of student growth, we continue to wait for more policymakers to recognize the potential for achievement gains when access to data and options is given to parents. But far too many families are currently trapped in failing systems, and don’t have the luxury of waiting for policymakers to enact real reform.

“With all the available resources and innovation that occurs within the United States, it’s inexcusable that we have not yet embraced the necessary reforms to significantly boost student outcomes.”

CER, since 1993, is the leading voice and advocate for lasting, substantive and structural education reform in the U.S. Additional information about the Center and its activities can be found at www.edreform.com.