The Good News about PISA Scores — and Now We Know What the REAL Problem Is!

by theschoolprincipal on January 10, 2011

Not that we haven’t said it all along. The problem is not teachers.

How do I know? Because researchers at the National Association for Secondary School Principals disaggregated the data from the 2009 PISA scores. The news that you and I read in December when the scores were released told us that American 15 year old students, when compared with 15 year olds in about 60 other countries,  scored only slightly above average in reading, average in science, and below average in math.

Do you recall the bad press that American public schools got in December because of the PISA scores? I certainly do.

Fast forward to January 2011 after the NASSP had time to scrutinize the scores more closely. We now realize that if we remove the scores of American students who live in poverty from the  results, American students score the highest of any country in reading, higher than Finland! Finland’s reading score was 536. When the the United States included ALL of its students’ scores, our score was a mediocre 500 in reading. When we remove the scores of students living  in poverty (students who qualify for free and reduced lunch), U.S.  students scored 551 — the top reading score.

Free and Reduced Meal Rate of U.S. Schools PISA Score
Schools with free & reduced population less than 10% 551
Schools with free & reduced population of  10 – 24.9% 527
Schools with free & reduced population of  25 – 49.9% 502
Schools with free & reduced population of 49.9 – 74.9% 471
Schools with free & reduced population greater than 75% 446
U.S. Average 500

To quote Dr. Gerald N.Tirozzi, the Executive Director of the NASSP: “Once again we’re reminded that students in poverty require intensive supports to break past a condition that formal schooling alone cannot overcome.”

Get ready. The next chart will shock you. WARNING: I suggest that unless you want many sleepless nights that you skip it altogether.

Although not all countries tested submitted their poverty rates, here is an abbreviated list of some of the countries that did. (At the bottom of this post you will see a link to the actual NASSP site where you will find complete listings.)

Country Poverty Rate PISA Scores
Finland 3.4% 536
Czech Republic 7.2% 478
Germany 10.9% 497
Australia 11.6% 515
Canada 13.6% 524
Japan 14.3% 520
United Kingdom 16.2% 494
United States 21.7% 500

Look at the chart below at the scores from countries with poverty rates of less than 10% and compare them to the U.S. scores of schools where the poverty rate is less than 10%:

Country Poverty Rate PISA Scores
United States Less than 10% 551
Finland 3.4% 536
Netherlands 9.0% 508
Belgium 6.7% 506
Norway 3.6% 503
Switzerland 6.8% 501
France 7.3% 496
Denmark 2.4% 495
Czech Republic 7.2% 478

Is  the real problem coming into focus? It’s not teachers. It’s not unions or any of the other willy-nilly things the NCLB reformers have been targeting. It’s poverty. Now we know what the problem is. Next we have to figure out effective ways to address it. No longer do we need to ask what’s causing our mediocre scores.  Now let’s get to it and drop NCLB, RTTT and all of the other nutty things we’ve been doing the last 10 years.

Another chart you’ll find on the NASSP site shows that even at U.S. schools where the poverty rate is 10 – 24.9% that U.S. students outscored countries with a similar poverty rate. U.S. students in this category scored 527.

To quote the NASSP report: “The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement.”

The report goes on to say: “While there is no relationship between poverty and ability, the relationship between poverty and achievement is almost foolproof. To deny that poverty is a factor to be overcome as opposed to an excuse is to deny the reality that all educators, human service workers, law enforcement officers, medical professionals, and religious clergy have known for years.”

Please read the rest of the online article at the link below. It’s not only factual, but it’s inspirational as well.

Now let’s get going. Instead of coming up with solutions such as charter schools, high stakes testing, firing teachers et al, let’s begin solving the real problem — poverty. Did you know that a 5 year old child who has lived in poverty begins kindergarten 18 months behind his/her classmates? Children in poverty are not likely to be familiar with print material, they don’t know the enjoyment available in books and therefore are  not motivated to learn to read, they lack a 5 year old child’s vocabulary so that when they come across words in reading, they have not heard them before. These children are typically still behind years later. Teachers can not make up for these deficits during  kindergarten. The place to fill in the gaps is in sound, enriched early childhood education in order to make sure these children have caught up by the time they reach kindergarten. Children who are successful in kindergarten are more likely to graduate from high school — and more likely to break out of poverty, thus finally ending a cycle that may have lasted for generations.

Here is the link to the NASSP article. [Sorry but this link has disappeared. I hope it’s not because I no longer subscribe to NASSP. Will look for it.] Oh by the way, Diane Ravitch reports in her latest “Bridging Differences” post on that Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution expects the poverty rate in the U.S. to increase to 25% by 2014. We better get busy!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Aswell
March 7, 2011 at 8:26 pm

The politicians in Louisiana don’t care about the students. They don’t care about the teachers. They care about one thing: power. They must have power just as an addict must have his fix. From what I’ve been reading on the national level, I’m afraid Louisiana isn’t unique but I’m up close and personal to the issues in Louisiana and in education, nothing takes on greater importance than power, whether it be through teacher layoffs or charter schools. The issues of poverty are never addressed. We were lucky when I was in school. I was poor, but I had some wonderful teachers who thought they saw something in me, so they nurtured me, encouraged me, and worked on the few strengths I had. Had it not been for those teachers, especially in high school, I don’t know what I would have done with my life. These were the ones in the trenches each and every day, the ones that the politicians refuse to acknowledge other than point to them as the problem.

This was a wonderfully enlightening piece and John, I think the problem–poverty–was identified long ago but the politicians, the ones in power, refused and continue to refuse to acknowledge it because it doesn’t fit into their agenda.


2 John Sachs
January 12, 2011 at 12:39 am

Now we are getting somewhere. The problem has been clearly identified. Poverty. That’s real progress. Let’s now begin to address the “fix.” It took a long time to identify the problem. Let’s hope that the fix won’t be so long in coming. With a unified agreement that the problem, poverty, had been identified, unity in commitment to developing the “fix” should bring rapid resolve. At least we can all hope so.


3 Nancy Flanagan
January 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Brilliant synopsis–thanks. Here’s what I want to know:
Given the human and communal tendency to always present our best face to others (including other nations), why is international testing data always presented in such a skewed way in America–as if our students were all failing (not to mention our schools and teachers)? What’s in it for those who write the stories to portray our education system as totally bankrupt, rather than successful in some contexts and struggling in others?

Does it have to do with American hyper-competitiveness (the insane idea that we have to be #1 on every indicator)? Does it have to do with denial of our inability–or unwillingness– to move closer to equity (which would certainly help those numbers)? Does it have to do with the interests of commerce and media, who benefit from repeating a false (but dramatic) story or cashing in on “solutions” that bring “results?”

Why would the media keep repeating they myth of “our failing schools?” What’s in it for them?


4 theschoolprincipal
January 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm

You know, Nancy, you’ve really hit the nail on the head. You’ve thought of just about every possibility for why we continue to ignore
the problem of poverty — except the one that I read quite often — which is speculation that political forces in our country are purposefully trying to dismantle our system of public education. I am not a conspiracy buff, and I have a hard time believing that in this country such a conspiracy is possible. Whatever the reason — inability to face facts, inability of ideologues to truthfully examine both sides of issues, not really believing in equal opportunity for all, fear of more taxes, a distaste for solving problems — I just don’t know. If our policy makers don’t care about these children, we can’t make them. But I do know they care about the economic future of this country as we try to function in a global economy. They do care about the future of their own children and grandchildren. They do care very much that our capitalistic, democratic way of life be a shining beacon to the rest of the world, a way of life for other countries to emulate. Trying to demonstrate to the world that our capitalistic way of life works when almost 22% of our citizens live in poverty will not be a convincing argument. Perhaps good old fashioned American pride will finally be the thing that breaks the gridlock across the country so, as a people, we can face the facts and find solutions. The issue is not about taxes or conservatism or libertarianism or any ism. It’s about examining our fiscal and monetary policies, our allocations, our decision-making. It’s about examining our preference to pay for prisons later rather than for schools now.

Here’s a quote from the blog of Lane Wentworthy, a University of Arizona professor, when speaking about inequality: “Among nations with sharp increases in top-heavy inequality, we observe a similar disjunction. Here the U.S. and the U.K. offer an especially revealing contrast. The top 1%’s income share soared in both countries, and through the mid-1990s poor households made little progress, as the following chart shows. But over the next decade low-end American households advanced only slightly, whereas their British counterparts experienced sizable gains. The New Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown increased benefits and/or reduced taxes for low earners, single parents, and pensioners. As Jane Waldfogel documents in her book Britain’s War on Poverty, these were big policy shifts, even if not always high-profile ones. They produced a significant rise in the real disposable incomes of poor households.” Take a look at his blog, Consider the Evidence, at You might want to scroll past his basketball posts to get to the meat of the matter.

As for the media — that’s easy. No good news is news. Bad news is what attracts readers and viewers. But’s that’s our own fault — if we were to run to the cable channels every morning eager to see the latest great things that had happened overnight, I’m sure the media would change its ways.


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