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Monday, March 13, 2017

Talking student testing and education reform with PISA


By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

If you thought that the Americans were fiercely competitive in the Olympics, take a look at public education.

Instead of pride over the sons and daughters standing astride the podium amid the rising swells of the national anthem, we get an inferiority complex about how we teach our children.

Of course, instead of leading the medal count, American schools are in the middle of the pack – neither great nor poor.  This is taken for mediocrity and lack of effort on the part of a failing school system.
There is more than meets the eye here.

In March, the local Duval Teachers United teachers union hosted a presentation of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) at the Schultz Center.  PISA studies the academic performance of 15-year-old students in math, science, and reading.  This is done through a random sampling of student testing in nations that belong to the PISA partnership.  DTU hosted this gathering to look at the data from their latest survey based on student testing in 2015.

The morning began with remarks from the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association – Randi Weingarten and Joanne McCall.

Weingarten said that it is useful to see what the top ranking countries are doing.  For example, she said, “They actually make teachers important.”

This meant, she said using their tests to inform instruction and not for punitive measures. 
Another factor behind high student performance, she said is equity. 

“Countries that deal with equity move up on the PISA scale,” said Weingarten, speaking of the proven results of universal Pre-K, mental health services, and other programs that can level the playing field for student achievement.

Weingarten also highlighted how the long term PISA numbers reflected education policy in two distinct nations that went opposite ways on the privatization issue.  The results, she said were as clear as Sweden and Poland.

On one hand, Sweden was “high flying” among other nations on their testing.  Then something changed.

“Sweden fell in love with market forces,” Weingarten said, along with privatization and for-profit schools expanding tenfold.  As a result, Sweden ranked lower than the United States in the following PISA reading surveys.

On the other hand, Weingarten said Poland had the lowest performing schools for a quarter of a century.  They made changes in 2000 that used testing to inform instruction instead of to punish schools.  Since those changes were made, Poland’s fortunes changed. 

Rob Weil, AFT director of field programs and educational issues briefed the assembled on the PISA data and additionally provided best (and worst) practices of schools around the world.

As data is only as reliable as its interpretation, I braced myself for the usual bad news but gained a better perspective of was beneath the surface of the PISA results.

For example, the United States ranks 24th in reading scores from the 2015 survey.  Its average reading score of 497 was only four points above the international average.

  While the knee jerk response would be to bemoan why American students cannot event crack the top ten, consider that federalism creates a patchwork of 50 different education systems that fall in different places on the curve.  It would be a mistake to treat American schools as a monolith of mediocre results.

Imagine if Massachusetts were a sovereign nation.  According to the PISA survey, they would actually tie with Canada for 3rd place on the 2015 survey.  The average reading score for both is 527, above the average score of 493.

Meanwhile, the Sunshine State has some ground to cover.  Weir referred to Florida’s 2012 PISA results as the 2015 did not have a sufficient sample to include.  If Florida were an independent country, it would rank 42nd with an average score of 467 in the PISA results. 

When a team’s performance is not up to par, the blame often falls on the coach – rightly or wrongly.  But is there more than meets the eye when pointing fingers?

Weil challenged the current mindset where teachers are the root of public education’s woes.

“There’s no research that shows that we have to fire teachers” to improve public education, Weil said.
And to the contrary, pitting schools against each other in competition for students under the guise of ‘choice’ is not the panacea either said, Weil.

“…cross-country correlations of PISA do not show a relationship between the degree of competition and student performance,” said an earlier PISA report from 2009.

To explain how choice and competition could have a detrimental effect on education, Weil presented Chile’s PISA scores.  The South American nation has used a voucher-based system for three decades.  Based on the ideas of Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, Chile’s free-market approach to education resulted in Chile’s 2015 PISA reading results (459) falling 34 points below the international average and ranking it 42nd among the 72 surveyed nations.

Furthermore, according to PISA research, charter schools and competition in general are not a definitive solution to education woes.

“The bottom line appears to be that, once again it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance,” said the Review of National Charter School study in 2013.

“Education isn’t a competition,” said FEA president McCall, during a panel discussion including Weingarten, Duval County school superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti and local education leaders that was held after Weil’s PISA presentation.

To the contrary, investment in public education has increased in other nations.  In spite of the global financial crisis of 2008, nations outside of the United States increased their investment in education by five percent.  The United States cut spending by one percent in this same time frame.

“You have to invest in a public school system,” said Dr. Vitti, who compared improving test scores in the district to rising fortunes in the corporate world.

“You don’t de-invest in a company that’s on the rise,” he said, “It’s the same concept for public education.”

The panel discussion also spoke of the challenges that equity presents to public schools that must serve all students regardless of their background, home life, or prior knowledge.

“We have so many students who start behind the curve,” said McCall.

What Duval County’s public schools has accomplished, Dr. Vitti said, has been an improved ratio of school counselors to students and the district ranking first in Florida counties for the percentage of students taking art and music classes.  And the district is planning to provide mental health training to all of its teachers.

This aligned with McCall’s vision for all Florida public school students.

“We have to have wraparound service school,” she said, referring to before and after school care to create a ‘safe haven’ for students.”

And how can teachers better serve their students in light of the latest PISA survey results?  According to Weir’s presentation, the answer lies in allowing teachers to collaborate with each other, trusting teachers to do what is best for their students, and affording teachers the time to do more than teach but to best work directly with their students individually.

Take notice that the solution does not include punitive measures or adversarial attitudes toward educators and education support professionals. 

“We’re never the enemy,” said McCall, “We’re always on the side of what’s best for students.” 

Together, we can go for the gold.

Together, we can go for the gold.PHIA DELANE

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