What’s Knowledge Got to Do with It? A PISA Roundup

by Guest Blogger
December 6th, 2013

We’ve all seen the PISA results this week: On reading, math, and science, our 15-year-olds have not made any improvements since 2009—but their peers in many other countries have. Some people question international assessments, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term assessment confirms PISA’s key finding: our teenagers are not improving.

In the chatter about PISA, there’s been a decent amount of good sense, but also a disturbing dance around the in-school factors that most affect what students know and are able to do: masterful teaching of a rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curriculum.

(Bright idea courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Dana Goldstein, writing for Slate, came close, noting that “out-of-school social supports matter, teachers should be empowered, and all kids ought to be exposed to the most challenging material.” And yet, she seemed to assume that America actually has a math curriculum: “Since the Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth in our currently rushed and overstuffed American math curriculum, it probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA.” Bill Schmidt’s research clearly showed that even math courses with the same name don’t teach the same content, so we’re far from an “American math curriculum.” Still, Goldstein’s key points, that all kids should get the same challenging material and that the Common Core could help nudge schools in that direction, ring true.

Adam Taylor, for Business Insider, boiled it down further and also hit on a nugget of truth: “the domination of PISA rankings by Asian countries looks complete, with countries from the region holding all the top seven spaces in math, the top five in reading, and the top four in science. Ultimately, this success might come down to something simple and harder to imitate — hard work.” Hard work is part of the picture, and there is certainly a tendency among some American parents and students to prefer stress-free happiness over academic pressure. But hard work alone won’t increase achievement. The content of the instructional materials matters. Adults need to do their hard work—writing the content-rich curriculum that the Common Core standards call for is clearly necessary.

New research from ACT shows that writing a coherent, knowledge-building curriculum aligned with the Common Core would be wise. By having over 2,000 10th graders take PISA and PLAN, ACT’s college and career readiness assessment that is aligned with the Common Core, ACT found that those who meet PLAN/Common Core’s definition of college and career ready also perform quite well in comparison with their peers from around the world.

So, are there any concrete lessons we could take from those countries that perform well on, and are improving on, PISA? Marc Tucker of National Center on Education and the Economy thinks so. Here’s his too-rational-to-be-accepted-in-the-US summary of what the better-performing countries do:

The first thing they do is very simple: they carefully study the strategies, policies and practices used by the top performers, not with an eye to copying anyone, but to learn from them, to adapt the best to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs.

Second, they provide more resources to the students who are harder to educate than to the students who are easier to educate.

Third, we see that all the top performers have invested heavily in the skills of their teachers.  Some have focused on sourcing their teachers from much higher quality high school graduates, insisting that their teachers have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they will teach (including their elementary school teachers) and insisting as well on solid preparation in the craft of teaching (they do not believe in alternative routes into teaching that skip this step).  Some, most notably Shanghai, have worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

Fourth, they have all put a lot of effort into building internationally competitive academic standards, intellectually demanding curriculum and examinations built on the curriculum that are designed to measure the full range of complex thinking skills on which their standards are based.

The top performers have all found ways to give very young children and their parents a lot of support before the children first show up for school.  They pay a lot of attention to vocational education and training and to school to work transition.  Not least important they work hard to build effective systems, the parts and pieces of which are designed to support one another and rely—gasp!—on government to implement those systems well.



  1. Let’s continue to ignore those top-performing high school history students and see if that will help us preserve the poor performance of most of our high school students in reading, History and academic expository writing. That has worked so far, so we might as well stick with it.

    Will Fitzhugh
    The Concord Review

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — December 6, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  2. I wonder if our education is so fractured that otherwise very educated education commenters/writers cannot even envision a solid curriculum. Amanda Ripley’s most recent book is very interesting and insightful except she never touches curriculum.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 6, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  3. I’ve been reading for decades about our graduation rate vs. the world. I’ve been reading about our test scores vs. the world. I’ve been reading about all the books written on those subjects by people who are selling books.

    Where are the data on the percent who actually start secondary education? The averages from testing don’t tell a true story of how the “education” is working when you have an apples & oranges situation in the classrooms. It only help those who are trying to blame the teachers and the curriculum and the parents — oh, and the kids too.

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 6, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

  4. It is true that in some schools, children are not exposed to the more advanced mathematics to which children in other schools are exposed, and thus do not achieve as well as the children who get more challenging mathematics.

    But could it not be that the causal arrow is reversed here? Perhaps teachers and administrators know that these children being taught simpler mathematics just could not handle more advanced mathematics, and thus don’t waste their time trying to teach it?

    If this is so, then it may be that the best we can do is to allow the exceptions to the rule among the less able children to escape their educational environment and move to a more challenging one.

    Put it another way: we should not try to teach the same mathematics to children whose IQ is 85 and to children whose IQ is 115. And evidently we don’t, because of the fact that people with these IQs tend to cluster geographically, and get served by different school systems.

    The article also raises the point that we are not challenging even our brighter 14-year olds to the extent that they are being challenged in certain other countries, but this is a separate issue.

    Possibly relevant here is that in the Far East, many if not most children have private tutors, which reflects the enormous pressure, transmitted by the parents, to achieve. This is simply not present in the culture of most Americans, certainly not in the poorer-performing sectors, and there is no way to transform these cultures. It is unrealistic, and unfair, to expect teachers to make up for the cultural deficits of their pupils.

    Here’s a thought experiment: take any inner-city school and transplant it to Shanghai, complete with all the single mothers. Does anyone really expect that these children would start performing at Chinese levels after a few years?

    Comment by Doug1943 — December 7, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  5. Hi Doug,
    Thanks for joining the conversation. Could you please provide some evidence for your claim about people of different IQs being clustered geographically? I have never seen any evidence of that. Here’s an article explaining that schooling can increase IQ: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/spring2013/nisbett.cfm

    Many Core Knowledge schools, and many other great schools, have found ways to accelerate all children’s learning. See, for example, this extraordinary school in Queens: http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/05/29/deepest-learning-reading-to-write-writing-to-learn/

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — December 7, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  6. Lisa, I read your references. Again, they are part of the word swarm in which we live.

    IQ and intelligence scores are the results of testing. Do we want to teach to that test too? Scaling the results and tweaking the vocabulary each generation keeps smelling like another apples to oranges non-issue.

    Every once in a while you can find a collection of teachers and administrators that do some wonderful things. Now and again there are sport teams that go undefeated. Copying their behavior does not lead to repeating their success. Once there was a teacher that got all of his intercity (why is that important) kids to pass an AP Calculus test. Why does that not happen in all cities?

    If there is an answer, it will lie in drawing skilled and motivated people into education. Many come despite the pay, but more are drawn elsewhere or are in for only the short term.

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 7, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  7. I’m curious what evidence is cited that other nations provide more resources to students who are harder to educate (#2, Mark Tucker). Our local district forgoes any GATE spending during the school year (a small summer program is offered), yet spends huge amounts of money on Special Ed programs. In addition, teachers are told that while we want all students to improve, it is most important to bring the below proficient levels up to proficient. We have a huge focus on the harder to educate, which I imagine is replicated in other districts across the nation. How are other nations doing more?

    Comment by kelseyjames — December 7, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

  8. For decades, it’s been understood that most countries do not try to educate the entire population. Many do little beyond 12-14. While we try to get all students to achieve some level through high school, we are destined to either fail at our goal or at least perform below the level of the other countries.

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 8, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

  9. Research indicates (see the first link in the post) that developed countries around the world educate the vast majority of their youth through the equivalent of our high schools. The PISA test, for example, is given to 15 year olds. The only results that are clearly not representative are those from Shanghai.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — December 8, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

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