The Olympics of Smarts

Christmas came early this year. The new PISA results are out. (PISA = a relatively sophisticated test of critical thinking administered to half a million 15 year-olds every three years in 65 countries.) This year is especially intriguing for the US because the focus is on math—our biggest weakness.

So I’ve been hunkered down, reading through the 3,000-some pages of analysis and data—which go far beyond what you read in the headlines—to see what we can learn.

The most obvious (and least interesting) result: Our teenagers remained below average in math for the developed world—and average in reading and science. No change over past 13 years, since PISA began. Could be better, could be worse.

The least obvious (and more interesting) results: Even our most affluent students, the ones with highly educated parents and tricked-out high schools, scored worse than their privileged peers in 27 other countries in math. (I’m not even counting Shanghai and other regions here--just countries.)

Our least-advantaged kids (the bottom quartile) also scored below their peers in 27 other countries. Even our middle class teenagers scored below their middle class peers across the developed world!

So let’s be clear: Math is a US weakness at every economic level. It’s true among adults, too. Not to mention teachers. Something is amiss. We are systematically underestimating what our kids can do in math—which is distressing, since math is a strong predictor of future earnings, college completion and all manner of metrics related to living a full and healthy life.

We did better in reading, which is good news. Because it suggests that we could do better in math, too, despite our poverty, our diversity, our size, our paranoia, our bureaucracies, our politicians and our unions. We could do better.

There is more good news. (No seriously!) Never have I seen so many complicated countries at the top of these rankings.  Not just Poland (16% child poverty) but Estonia (15% child poverty), Canada (15%) and Vietnam! I haven’t yet found reliable, comparable child poverty figures for Vietnam, but from what I've seen, I'd guess it's far higher than all those countries and more than double our own rate. So Vietnam is blowing my mind. This is the first time they've taken PISA, by the way.

You know what this means, right? This means that it is possible to improve education despite poverty. It means it can be done—and other countries can show us the way.

Take Poland: This country, a land defined by tragedy, overrun by Nazis and traumatized by communists; a big, messy place with plenty of distrust for the central government; this country has lifted up an entire generation of students, moving from below average for the developed world (and below the US) in the 2000 PISA results—to above average (and way above the US) in 2012.

Polish teens are now performing at the level of Finland, a place with a much lower child poverty rate (4%). Polish teens are scoring far above Sweden and Norway. (Sweden and Norway, interestingly, have both slid on PISA, going from above average in 2000 to at or below average in 2012—despite 5% child poverty levels).

Poland underwent a series of reforms in 1999-2000 (followed by a bit more in 2009). I’ll write more about what they did soon, but for now, suffice it to say that what Poland did was similar to what other countries have done to inject rigor into their systems. This is not mystical or entirely cultural, which is the best news yet.

EducationAmanda Ripley