The United States Can Learn From Others' PISA Successes

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To the Editor:

Demographics don't have to become destiny, despite how people have interpreted the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report ("Global Test Shows U.S. Stagnating," Dec. 11, 2013).

The analysis of the places where students do well in mathematics—the focus of the most recent PISA in 2012—found that high-performing students are more likely to be found in educational systems where:

  • Education funds are distributed equitably so that learning for low-income students is funded in the same way as for higher-income students;
  • Students are not segregated by their performance, but are mainstreamed;
  • Low-performing students are identified early and given specialized help and resources before disengagement takes root;
  • Families are involved and encouraged to keep their children engaged in their education;
  • Positive teacher-student relationships are promoted, as are positive school climates where students feel they belong and students' views are solicited and listened to; and
  • Education is valued in the culture as in the national interest.

Because the PISA tests 15-year-olds, it may seem as if the skills and knowledge it involves are for older students, but that's not true. Good age-appropriate early-childhood programs can build a strong foundation for learning. In all of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, member-countries children who attended pre-primary school for more than one year scored 53 points higher in math—the equivalent of one year of schooling—than those without a pre-primary education.

The results of the PISA should give us pause in the United States. If we are teaching to the test, it is the wrong test. Like leading OECD countries, we need to promote knowledge and skills, focusing on helping children stay truly engaged learners by moving away from our current test-crazed approach that promotes rote learning. Instead, we should emphasize experiential discovery and the learning of lifelong skills and give children opportunities to solve real-life issues by thinking critically and creatively.

Ellen Galinsky
President and Co-Founder
Families and Work Institute
New York, N.Y.

The writer is also the senior director of the institute's "Mind in the Making" initiative.

Vol. 33, Issue 19, Page 22

Published in Print: January 29, 2014, as The United States Can Learn From Others' PISA Successes
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