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What is the Good News In PISA?

PISA, Program for International Student Assessment, is a hot topic right now because our students in the United States generally score at or below average. Why that might be important to a classroom teacher is a good place to start letting these test results change the way we decide what we should change in our curriculum and what should stay the same.

To refresh your memory PISA is an international assessment that looks at the performance of 15-year olds in a host of nations in Math, science and literacy. We are very slowly gaining ground in science but more is needed. The Canadians are using the data to make some significant changes in their system of instruction.

Our Neighbors to the North followed 30,000 students and found some strong correlations between performance on PISA and educational attainment. Students who scored in the bottom quartile of the assessment were more likely to drop out of school where students in the top quartile were more likely to still be in school by the age of 21. Students in level 5 in reading were 20 times more likely to go to college than students in level one. Most of these are results that classroom teachers would expect. The economic impact of those factors is what will surprise most. The Alliance for Excellent Education states that a 25 point rise in US PISA scores would add 41 trillion dollars to the US GDP by 2090. 

My first question would be how do they determine that rise? There are many groups of economists who study the data of nations and plot skill levels and education levels of workers with economic growth. It is pretty clear that skill level of students is related to workforce competitiveness. One example that interested me was Finland. The main export of Finland used to be timber. Today they export technology (think Nokia here). They were able to shift their workforce through education. I know they are a much smaller nation and that gives them a nimble advantage at rapid changes. But, the differences go much deeper than area or population.

In high performing countries there is a tight focus on teacher quality. These other countries systematically recruit and hire top talent for their classroom teacher positions, provide a strong mentoring program and pay these teachers more than we do in most districts. Where the pay is a factor I think certainly attracting the best and the brightest back into our classrooms will pay very high dividends in student achievement.

I think about the creative folks I have worked with. Most were talented people with lots of choices in careers. They selected teaching for a variety of reasons. The connecting thread of these high performers was that they were in the top 25% of their college classes. With the creative solutions to the challenges we face in our classrooms today it helps to have very talented folks guiding these classes and designing curricula.

The pat on your back here is that PISA shows, as do other forms of assessment, that the most critical factor in transforming education to a high performing engine for our economy is quality in our teaching force. Quality teachers are the single most important cog in the wheel. To find out more on these studies check out these sites.

Next week I will dive into how to use the specific assessment items to improve your instruction. The questions on the PISA test are a wealth of great classroom instruction ideas.

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