Tag: PISA

Michelle Rhee’s Common Core Crud

I don’t dislike the oft-attacked Michelle Rhee. I don’t even know her. But I do dislike disingenuous or empirically anemic arguments about the Common Core, and she offers too many of both in a new Politico op-ed.

Let’s start with the most aggravating thing she does in her piece: imply that anyone who opposes the Core based on concerns about Washington’s role in it is proffering a “false narrative of a federal takeover” and making “wild claims.” As Core apologists have done repeatedly, Rhee utterly ignores the $4.35-billion Race to the Top program that de facto required Core adoption to compete, and No Child Left Behind waiver rules that locked most states into the Core. She also turns a blind eye to the overall trajectory of federal education policy, which went from decades of mainly providing money, to requirements that states have standards and tests, to now pushing specific standards and tests—and let’s be honest, that ultimately means curricula—on schools.

If Rhee wants to have a substantive debate on the Common Core, great! But we can’t have that if she and other Core supporters refuse to acknowledge basic reality about the federal role, and they essentially smear people who do acknowledge reality as purveyors of “wild claims.”

There is much more that’s dubious about Rhee’s piece, though not as infuriating as the ol’ smear-and-deny.

Rhee, for instance, ignores the wise counsel delivered last week not to simplistically cherry-pick results on the recent PISA exam to press for national standards. Rigorous analysis needs to be done, controlling for lots of factors ranging from income levels to national culture, to determine the effect of national standards on test results. The problem for Core supporters is that when that is done, national standards appear to make essentially no difference. Rhee also ignores the well-reported research of Brookings’ Tom Loveless, who found that the quality or rigor of state standards has had no correlation with state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Indeed, Rhee’s own piece contradicts itself. Rhee applauds Massachusetts for its relatively high performance on PISA, but laments that in the Bay State “student performance continues to vary greatly” from district to district and “between white students and children of color.” But fear not: “Correcting for that inequity among schoolchildren is exactly what Common Core  seeks to do.” The thing is, the Bay State has had uniform state standards for roughly two decades, meaning uniformity did not end disparities, and national standardization will not change the fact that standards within all states have been uniform for more than a decade under No Child Left Behind.

So no, I don’t dislike Michelle Rhee. But I very much dislike her denial of facts, and ignoring of evidence, on the Common Core.

Highlights of the New PISA International Test Results

The latest (2012) PISA results are out! PISA is a test of fairly basic, practical skills given to 15-year-olds around the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • U.S. performance is essentially flat across subjects since 2003
  • Finland’s performance has declined substantially since 2003
  • Korea is continuing to improve, solidifiying its position as one of the highest performing nations
  • Already the highest-performing Latin American country, Chile has continued to improve, leaving the regional average further behind.

The U.S. story needs little elaboration. Neither the structure nor the content of American schooling has changed in educationally meaningful ways since 2003. We still have 50 state education monopolies, with a growing but still realtively small homogenizing federal presence.

The “Replicate Finland!” bandwagon was always misguided. It is simply not sensible to take a nation’s performance on a single test, in isolation, as evidence for the merits (or demerits) of its national education policies. There are too many other factors that affect outcomes, and there are too many important outcomes for a single test to measure. For those who nevertheless championed Finland as a model, the latest PISA results are a bit awkward (see, for instance, the book: The Smartest Kids in the World).

Though the Chilean student protests of 2011 and 2012 focused on the desire for free, universal college, the leaders of that movement also harshly criticized that nation’s universal K-12 private school choice program. About 60 percent of children in Chile attend private schools, most of them fully or substantially funded by the national government. One of the most famous protest leaders, Camila Vallejo, was recently elected to the Chilean congress as a member of the Communist party. The influence of Vallejo and her compatriots has shifted public sentiment against crucial aspects of the nation’s private school choice program, despite the fact that private schools themselves remain extremely popular with parents. It is quite possible that, in the coming years, Chile will unravel the very policies that have made it one of the fastest improving countries in the world and the top performer in Latin America.

The NEA has called for higher U.S. teachers’ salaries based on the PISA results, arguing that some of the top performing countries pay their teachers more relative to people in other careers. This is self-serving and scientifically dubious. The NEA presents no evidence for a causal link between overall teacher salaries and student performance, just a bit of random cherry picking that ignores countless confounding factors. To find the real link between average salaries and performance, we can look at domestic U.S. research on the subject. Hanushek and Rivkin, for instance, find that “overall salary increases for teachers would be both expensive and ineffective.” Not surprisingly, a recent review of Ohio’s data on teacher “value-added” and teacher pay finds an inverse relationship:

in Cleveland… teachers deemed “Least Effective” by the new state evaluation system earned, on average, about $3,000 more than the teachers deemed “Most Effective.”

There’s some evidence that tying teacher pay to student performance helps to improve learning, but that’s about it.

Finally, it’s important to remember that PISA is a test of everyday “literacy” in the three subjects it covers (math, reading, and science). If you want to know how well students are learning the specific academic content needed for continuing study at the college level, PISA isn’t your best choice. For that, take a look at TIMSS.

Leaning Too Hard on PISA

This morning the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment – or PISA – are available, and already some are declaring that they show the United States needs national curriculum standards. Conveniently, we’ve got an effort to implant such standards right now: the Common Core. But do the latest PISA results really show that national standards are what make, in particular, East Asian nations excel, and their absence here is what sticks us in the doldrums?

Of course not. As Jay Greene so helpfully points out as everyone scrambles to cherry-pick data to press their agendas, just “eyeballing” countries’ results tells us basically nothing. There is far too much that affects outcomes to declare your favored reform the right one based on a glance at PISA results. To begin to get at root causes, analyses that allow one to control for numerous variables are needed.

The good news is, such analyses have been done. The bad news, at least for national standards fans, is that they do not support the idea that national standards lead to superior results. Indeed, there is good evidence that national culture – not standards or tests – might be the most important determinant of outcomes on international exams. You can read all about it in Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards, a 2010 Cato report intended to weigh in on a debate about the merits of moving to national standards.  It’s a debate that, alas, we never really had thanks to the federal government telling states that they either adopt national standards right away, or lose out on federal dough.

With that in mind, maybe one good thing will come out of national standards aficionados declaring PISA vindication of their policies. It will open up the chance to have a serious national debate about how real that “vindication” is.

P.S.: Andrew Coulson will soon be furnishing a much broader analysis of the PISA results than I offer here. Stay tuned!