A Few Thoughts on PISA

I’ve spent much of the day listening to the presentations and discussions organized by the Alliance for Excellent Education on the release of the PISA data, a once-every-three year event that captures the attention of the education policy world.  PISA is, by all reasonable accounts, the best international measure we have of students’ capacity to engage in problem-solving and deeper thinking in math, reading and science. For the United States, the results are not very promising.  Over the last decade, our 15-year-old students have essentially flatlined in their performance, while those from many other countries (e.g., Brazil, Vietnam, and Poland) have significantly improved.  As a result, the U.S. ranking has declined.
What makes PISA especially valuable as a source of information on educational performance is that the OECD also collects reams of other data—separate and apart from student achievement—that connect to schooling structures and student attitudes. That is, we can use the test not to find which countries are better educating their students, but as a way to understand what it is about systems of education that promote higher (and less high) outcomes. Indeed, I could write for days on all the things I’ve learned today about some of the correlations that OECD has unearthed, but I want to focus on two in particular. 
The first, as voiced by many presenters today, is the vital significance of having high standards for what constitutes proficiency and then holding students to those high standards through well-designed, well-aligned assessments. It seems cliché to say so, but when countries set out coherent, challenging objectives for learning, then teachers and students actually strive to reach them. We don’t even need to look abroad to prove the point. Students from Massachusetts, one of three U.S. states to participate in PISA as a distinct region, ranked near the top of the world in all three subjects. Massachusetts—identified by both the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Achieve, as having among the most challenging standards and, in turn, sound assessments in the nation—has been committed to its system of high standards for 15 years. And this commitment has paid off in terms of seeing its students registering achievement at the high levels expected in the PISA test.
The second key finding, also mentioned by several speakers, is what is referred to as “delivery capacity,” which in simpler terms is making sure that schools and teachers have the tools available to effectively educate students to the high standards. In large part, this resource category refers to human capacity or the quality of teaching and instructional leadership at the school level. And, no doubt, the difference for a student between having an effective teacher versus having an ineffective one can be enormous, even for years to come.  Yet, there is also a more foundational piece of this capacity puzzle: the time which students and teachers have available together. With enough time, teachers can push students not only to learn basic content, but also to apply their knowledge to solving complex problems. While there is no clear evidence at a national level that school time has a huge impact on PISA achievement, I’ve written before of research that shows that when the data are disaggregated to a school level, students that attend schools with more time that also have better instruction are more likely to perform better. 
Again, I would point to some schools in Massachusetts to bring this concept about the value of more time for promoting higher educational outcomes to life. NCTL has identified over 130 schools in the state that have expanded time, in the form of a longer day, a longer year, or some combination. In 2013, these expanded-time schools that served a majority of children from low-income communities were twice as likely to have a median student growth percentile—the measure the state uses to measure the relative capacity of a school to advance student achievement—in math and ELA that was in the top quintile of high-poverty schools statewide. So, that means that in a state that is among the best-performing jurisdictions in the world, the ones that grow at a faster pace tend to be those with more time. Others point to the substantial learning time in some Asian high-performing countries like South Korea, where students spend most of their waking hours in school, as a reason for their success. This “all in” model is probably not a good fit for this country, though, and, as the BBC points out, is getting a fair amount of pushback in Korea itself. 
To be sure, I’ve identified a correlation and not a causation here, but on a day when those in the education world are looking for those factors within the complex system of schooling that might make a difference, learning time, pure and simple, must be counted among them.