I have just finished reading Mel Riddile’s analysis of the 2009 PISA results published in the NASSP blog “The Principal Difference’ in 2010.
His argument basically is that if we divide the USA population of tested students according to levels of poverty and then compare them with other countries with similar levels, we find we are not doing too badly. He argues that US schools with less than a 25% poverty rate score a creditable PISA score of 551 for the less than 10% population and 527 for the 10% – 24.9% population) – better than any of the other countries with similar (overall) poverty numbers. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that comparing a select group from the USA (only those schools with less than 25% poverty rate) with an entire country with a poverty rate of less than 25% is not comparing like populations. He concludes that the problem with the US reading scores is basically caused by poverty.
This misses the point – that growing levels of poverty may well be the result of problems with education. Classic chicken and egg stuff. The success story of Finland began forty years ago when poverty levels were far different from what they are today. The restructuring of the education system went hand in hand with a growing social equity.
We know this to be true – education is the path out of poverty. It follows that famine, pestilence and natural disasters aside, a growing level of poverty suggests a failure of education.
An extensive analysis of results in the light of social equity can be found in the report “PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume 2).
OECD analysis of their test results leads the report to state:
“GDP per capita influences educational success, but this only explains 6% of the differences in average student performance. the other 94% reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference”.
You might protest that growing income inequality in the USA makes a measure such as GDP per capita an unfair yard stick, and in a sense you might be right. But why is there such income disparity? Because a growing segment of the population does not have the educational opportunities to access higher incomes through better paying jobs. Once again poverty and schooling are inextricably linked.
It’s not poverty. It’s certainly not ‘stupid’. It’s a complex interplay between schooling and poverty, an interplay in which schooling is letting down too many of our kids and leading to an increasing number of them facing futures of poverty.
Mel Riddile says “Instead of looking to low-poverty countries like Finland for direction, we should be looking to take what we already know about educating students in high-performing, high-poverty schools …”. I respectfully disagree – in part. Indeed we DO need to look at countries where a long term vision has created social equity in education where it once did not exist. We must look beyond our boundaries, to resist the “curse of riches” and learn from others.
And yes, we must stop labeling schools as failing. Instead we must recognize that it is the system that is failing and any remedy will be systemic, not school by school. Finland has developed a SYSTEM that ensures there will be no failing schools. We are trying to fix the problem by looking at one school at a time.
We need systemic change.