PISA 2009: U.S. Students in the Middle of the Pack

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) on Tuesday morning, showing that U.S. students are ranked average in reading and science, and below average in math.

Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics, not significantly changed since the last time the report was conducted in 2006. Countries that landed in the top ten for all three disciplines include South Korea, Finland, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today called the findings a “wake-up call.”

The PISA report comes on the heels of the just-released McKinsey Global Education Study that analyzes the performance levels of 20 school systems around the world.

The results for U.S. students were not unexpected, but the both reports will undoubtedly cause some politicians to call for any and all education reforms to be accelerated across the country.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel urged caution, however, asking policymakers to carefully review the data before jumping to conclusions.

“We want to be certain that policies are grounded in the evidence that PISA and other well-rounded research provide about effective education rather than in a political reaction to the PISA rankings,” Van Roekel said.

And it’s important also to recognize the limits of the PISA study. It does not, for example, cover the full curriculum, nor does it take into account the views of educators. In addition, their “average” or “below average” ranking masks the fact that, according to another OECD study, US students also make up 25 percent of the highest scoring students in the world in science.

What both the PISA and McKinsey reports make clear, however, is that students’ socioeconomic background and achievement are inextricably linked and that students tend to succeed when schools and community support teachers through collaboration and professional development.

“High-performing systems make the teaching profession attractive and they support and train their teachers,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria said on Tuesday. The PISA report spotlights benchmark country Finland, the highest performing system in Europe, for its comprehensive teacher recruitment and training program.

Successful collaboration in these high-performing countries, Van Roekel points out, depends on the active participation of their professional teachers’ union. On March 16-17, 2011, NEA will be co-hosting, along with Secretary Duncan, the OECD, and Education International, a summit on the teaching profession. Key education stakeholders from around the world will be attending to trade strategies and share success stories.

“We are at the brink of a brilliant new era for the profession of teaching,”Van Roekel said, “and it’s up to us – unions, policymakers, and the public – to learn from new research and find ways to strengthen teaching and learning.”