The Economics Behind International Education Rankings

This week’s release of international education rankings placing U.S. students in the middle of the pack for reading and science and below average in math contained few surprises. But what might have been overlooked in the horse race coverage of how the students stacked up is an economic link that further supports the argument that their poverty levels are potentially the most significant factors in their success.

The head of the National Association of Secondary School Principals took a closer look at how the U.S. reading scores compared with the rest of the world’s, overlaying it with the statistics on how many of the tested students are in the government’s free and reduced lunched program for students below the poverty line. Here’s what he found:

* In schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai, China which topped the ranking with a score of 556.

* In schools where 75 percent or more of the students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score was 446. That’s off the bottom of the charts, below last-place Greece’s 483.

Money matters and countless studies have demonstrated a link between parents’ income and students’ test scores.

“These data remind us that U.S. schools do rather well by students who come to school ready to learn, but it’s impossible to ignore the persistent correlation between poverty and performance,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the association (at right). “Once again, we’re reminded that students in poverty require intensive supports to break past a condition that formal schooling alone cannot overcome.”

Tirozzi points out that other nations sort students into professional and labor tracks in early teen years. Not so in the U.S., where educators commit to educating all students and encouraging them to high standards into the high school years.

“The release of the (Program for International Student Assessment) data gives school leaders occasion to recommit to that goal” Tirozzi said. “And we hope policymakers and all with a stake in the success of U.S. schools will take this occasion as well not merely to consider the problem, but to recommit with us to solving it.”

Here’s the full chart of disaggregated U.S. reading score data from the PISA results:

When less than 10 percent of students are free and reduced lunch: 551
10 to 24.9 percent: 527
25 to 49.9 percent: 502
50 to 74.9 percent: 471
75 percent or more: 446
U.S. average: 500
International average: 493


Building a  Vision for Educational Equality

On Wednesday, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel met with U.S. and global education leaders, including Education International (EI) President Susan Hopgood, Beth King of the World Bank, and Angelo Gavrielatos, president of the Australian Education Union, to discuss strategies on meeting the target of universal, high-quality basic Education For All (EFA) by 2015.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (center) confers with Australian Education Union President Angelo Gavrielatos and Education International President Susan Hopgood.

Sixty-nine million students are without any access to education and many millions more are in dilapidated, overcrowded classroom, sometimes without a trained teacher.

Van Roekel emphasized that elevating the teaching profession around the world – effective recruitment, retention, and development – is absolutely critical for success. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 10.3 million additional teachers around the world will be needed to reach the EFA targets.

Educational equity and access, as well as human rights, EI President Susan Hopgood explained, are inseparable concepts. EI, the global federation of teachers’ unions, has been a leading global voice in advocating for education equity.

Hopgood also emphasized that teachers unions worldwide must strengthen and sustain partnerships with civic and social justice organizations to meet EFA by 2015.

— Tim Walker

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  • Ken Mortland

    The volume of misinterpreted data out there boggles the mind. Tirozzi joins Gerald Bracey (may he rest in peace) and David Berliner in exposing the fallacies of the popular interpretation of data. My hat’s off to Mr. Tirozzi. I intent to share his interpretations throughout my network of contacts.

  • What a stupid defense, and actually criticizing US economical system more than any critic could do. First; you can’t change the result by saying that “when students are richer they do better in test,” because you have to consider poorer children as well otherwise the tests would be biased. Didn’t these people ever heard of random sampling? Second; America has been surpassed by many countries, and those countries’ scores are not justified by student income level (there’s poor students in all countries.)

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  • Antonio

    Did it ever occur to anyone that, perhaps, poor neighborhoods aren’t the sole cause of poor schools in those neighborhoods? Maybe poor schools create poor neighborhoods? Or my personal favorite:

    A somewhat poor neighborhood with somewhat poor schools (for whatever reason) becomes more poor as it fails more and more of its children (through those somewhat poor schools). Then, those very poor neighborhoods lead to very poor education systems and very poor local government leaders because of the very poorly educated voting population (if they even vote at all).

    Just food for thought–think outside of the box.

    *Comparing the upper echelon of students in the US to the data consisting of AVERAGE students in other countries isn’t completely sage statistical practice either. That being said, the U.S. may have more income disparity (and educational performance disparity) than these other countries, hence the adjusted results being so staggering. I assume that the US would NOT be #2 if the same adjustment (only looking at the top 10% of schools by income) were made for every other country–the US would surely be above it’s 30th place ranking, but still below quite a few countries.

    The problem is not JUST money, but it is in PART about money. The other part consists of fixing the EDUCATION SYSTEM which includes improving the quality of teachers and facilities.

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  • Be

    the last comment failed to correctly read and understand that this is not comparing the top 10 percent income student scores with the average income student scores of other countires. This article’s data is showing that student scores on pisa in schools With a Student Population of which Less than 10 percent of the student are below the poverty level score better than students in countries in which the entire population of students is less than 10 percent of their poverty level…. This is totally different from your misunderstanding in which you believe that this data is measuring a population of students who are from the top 10 percent income braket. Maybe you are one of the poor performing students…

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  • Joy

    But then again, this data by the NASSP just precisely proves – why Finland has the best educational system in the world today. Their main goal was that of equality and not excellence. Meaning all students rich or poor, have or the have-nots will have the same quality of good education. Heck, they don’t even have private schools over there.

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  • Lawton

    It is clear that this assessment is using FRM to determine poverty in the U.S. What is the poverty metric used to determine the poverty levels in the other countries to which the U.S. is being compared?

    • Shamash Shamash

      Something different. They call it comparing apples to oranges.
      And it is apparently considered “valid” in education circles.
      How did you catch this when so many “officials” didn’t?
      Maybe, like me, you actually thought about it for a moment.

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  • Shamash Shamash

    “look at how the U.S. reading scores compared with the rest of the world’s, overlaying it with the statistics on how many of the tested students are in the government’s free and reduced lunched program for students below the poverty line.”
    Actually, that last part “free and reduced lunched program for students below the poverty line” is a flat out lie.
    The FRL program is for students whose families are BELOW a range between 130%(Free) and 185%(Reduced) of the federal poverty level.
    So a LOT of those kids are actually WELL ABOVE the federal poverty line.
    Also, no one verifies income eligibility, so who knows how many of these kids are REALLY below the poverty level. It is a lousy proxy for the real poverty level of these children.
    But it is convenient because it’s in the databases. Oh well, guess that will do.
    Even if it does result in invalid comparisons, not worth a plug nickel.
    How did people miss that?
    And why is this study even considered close to valid?
    Is it because people like like the results, regardless of the data or techniques used to get them?
    Just curious.
    Maybe an “educator” can explain this to me.