Like children headed home with their report cards, the nations of the globe recently received grades on the educational achievement of their students via the test known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. Reactions ranged from celebration to resignation to recrimination, depending upon the results.
In the United States, France and Great Britain, educators and political leaders bemoaned another disappointing showing despite their enviable wealth. They looked to East Asia and Eastern Europe and sought to understand how poorer countries in these regions could achieve so much more with fewer resources.
In Germany, educators took a measure of satisfaction that they had arrested an alarming decline, though they were far from declaring victory. In Poland, where leaders congratulated themselves for a breakout performance, the impressive results reinforced a controversial set of reforms.
The unleashing of the latest PISA scores occasioned a familiar debate over the merits of reducing the quality of schooling to a data point. Even the man who coordinates PISA, Andreas Schleicher, cautions that the numbers can be taken too far.
"Any assessment is a partial reflection of what matters," he told The WorldPost. "Math, science and literacy are the foundation for most of the other things, but they're not everything."
Yet the nation-by-nation comparisons prove irresistible, serving as fodder for arguments over appropriate educational philosophy, social justice and the shaping influences of culture, custom and class.
Beyond the headline numbers, the results speak to widening inequality in much of the wealthy world, as students from affluent homes pull ever further away from impoverished peers. But they also underscore the degree to which thoughtful policies in less-endowed countries can transcend such limitations and deliver considerable student gains.
"PISA tells us what is possible," Schleicher said. "I hear from many people that poor performance is all about poverty. But we see a lot of countries with a lot of poverty get a lot of good results."
The WorldPost deployed its global newsroom to probe the significance of the results in several nations, producing this report with an eye toward highlighting what is working and what needs to be most urgently addressed.
UNITED STATES: Even The Wealthy Kids Lag
For the United States, another year of PISA data produced another middling showing, much to the surprise of no one. Pointing to the results, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared "a picture of educational stagnation."
Yet even as experts have grown accustomed to disappointing American achievement, the degree to which students from the United States now trail their counterparts made for something of a shock, provoking questions about the country's ability to compete in a global economy.
Among American 15-year-olds, performance on the 2012 PISA -- the latest survey -- showed virtually no improvement compared to a decade earlier. In math, they ranked 26th out of the 34 industrialized countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), while in reading they registered 17th.
Americans have to some extent grown resigned to such comparisons, which largely reflect the socioeconomic realities of a country in which more than 22 percent of children live in poverty. The children of wealthier families continued to perform significantly better than their poorer peers, perpetuating a cycle of income inequity in which their better grades place them on a path to selective colleges and higher-paying careers.
Yet the overall PISA data reveals that plenty of countries in which large numbers of people are poor have managed to engineer significant improvements. Among the 65 countries that participated in the most recent PISA exams, 40 posted significantly higher scores than a decade earlier.
Moreover, even wealthier American students lag behind their peers worldwide. Those from households in the top quarter of incomes performed worse than their peers in more than 20 other countries, from Slovakia to Singapore, according to the OECD, which administers PISA.
"People get fatigued by these comparisons because it's depressing and demoralizing," said Amanda Ripley, an author whose recently released book, The Smartest Kids In The World, followed American high school students who partook in exchange programs abroad. "Poverty is a big deal but some countries have found ways to mitigate in ways that we have not ... We have enough data to show that change is possible. You can no longer throw up your hands. The real knot of it is, which changes?"
Experts parsing the data were struck by the story it told about American inequality -- how lesser-advantaged young people in some other countries seem to benefit more from education than poor Americans. As PISA coordinator Andreas Schleicher noted, even countries with high child poverty rates such as Poland have improved over time. And higher-income countries with less inequality have seen greater educational performance in poorer schools.
"In a country like Finland, which spends less on education than the U.S., if you come from a disadvantaged background, the system makes more of an investment in you," Schleicher said. "In the U.S., spending is regressive: If you grow up in a poor neighborhood, you're likely to go to a poor school."
No broad-scale reforms aimed at more equitably distributing resources are currently in play, though the Common Core State Standards Initiative may offer a partial remedy, Schleicher said: Forty-six states have agreed to learning standards that are designed to improve the application of knowledge among American students. However, political protests and implementation issues may imperil its promise.
The PISA data may also suggest that American students are hampered by cultural conceptions that value innate talent more than effort. On surveys conducted along with PISA, 15-year-olds were asked what makes them successful in math. American students pegged their success to "talent," while students in higher-performing countries were more likely to attribute their results to "effort."
-- Joy Resmovits reporting from New York
GREAT BRITAIN: The Blame Game
For the United Kingdom, the PISA scores amounted to uncomfortable reading. Despite massive investment in the education system from both Conservative and Labour governments, England slipped five places in science to 21st in the world, while climbing only two places in reading and math -- to 26th and 23rd, respectively.
Yet instead of inspiring plans for improvement and change, the rankings merely resulted in politicians and teachers passing the blame around. Education Secretary Michael Gove said it was Labour's fault; Labour blamed the government, saying its school policy had "failed"; education charities blamed teachers; teachers unions blamed poverty and teachers found fault with the PISA tests themselves.
One Durham University professor cited the consequences of grade inflation as a reason for the U.K.'s lackluster performance -- a cynical accusation that tends to be heard whenever national standardized test scores are released.
Since 1988, the proportion of papers garnering top marks in the U.K.’s General Certificate of Secondary Education has steadily increased (though it dipped slightly in 2012). Research published in 2013 by exam watchdog Ofqual found that exams had become easier over the past decade.
As a result, in September 2012 the government announced an overhaul of the exam system and said it would replace the GCSE exams with the English Baccalaureate Certificate starting in 2015. Exam retakes will be limited, coursework cut down and "rigorous" exams introduced, in the hope of improving academic standards in England.
It is too early to see the impact of Gove's education reforms in the rankings, a fact underscored by PISA program coordinator Andreas Schleicher, who said there would be no "great surprises" for the U.K. within the data.
Although the National Union of Teachers was quick to blame socioeconomic differences among students for the PISA results, Schleicher noted that the data yielded scant differences between the U.K.'s state and private schools, after accounting for differing income levels of students.
Another union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, blamed the PISA tests.
"Focussing on rankings can lead to perverse outcomes," Mary Bousted, the union’s general secretary, told HuffPost UK. "A much better approach is to concentrate on improving children’s education and ensuring young people are well-equipped and confident for life beyond school."
-- Lucy Sherriff reporting from London
GERMANY: The End of 'PISA Shock'
At the beginning of the new millenium, the poor performance of German students on the PISA tests triggered so-called "PISA shock" among the public. Outrage ensued as Germans considered the fact that their land of poets, thinkers and engineers had somehow managed to lag so far behind other countries. State educational laws were retooled, and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research pursued various reforms aimed at boosting achievement.
For German students, PISA shock consigned them to more hours at school than at home, staying there well into the afternoon. Even as student athletes travel to soccer practice or horseback riding, they now devote time to studying vocabulary. In short, educational policymakers bet that quantity would produce quality.
More than a decade later, that strategy appears to have produced dividends: The latest PISA results show that for the first time Germany exceeded the OECD average in all disciplines (math, reading and science). Education Minister Johanna Wanka effectively declared victory, calling for the end of the "PISA shock."
And yet the trend is not as positive as the headline numbers suggest. Fifteen-year-old Germans saw their math scores barely budge in raw terms. Meanwhile, 20 percent of students read below grade level -- a result unchanged from a decade ago. In key respects, Germany is far from being a model when it comes to quality education.
Above all, the country is still fighting against a declining level of performance. The new PISA results reveal a deficit in fostering the education of particularly gifted students. The proportion of low-achieving students has fallen over the past years, but the proportion of high-achieving students has stagnated.
"We have not yet been able to put into effect an educational system which incorporates both the weaker and the stronger students," Dräger said. "Support is not just seeing that someone achieves the minimum."
Meanwhile, German girls are lagging behind boys in math yet outpacing them in reading. In the first PISA study 13 years ago, girls scored an average of 9 points below their male peers. The gap has now widened to 14 points.
An additional factor in Germany’s mediocre performance is arguably teacher training at German universities. Each German state has its own standards for education degrees, and the experience and aptitude among teachers varies greatly.
"Education plays only a minor role in teacher trainings," said Norbert Seibert, a professor at the University of Passau.
Improving the quality of teaching may be a crucial means of elevating student achievement.
-- Jan David Sutthoff reporting from Munich
POLAND: Affirmation of Reforms
When Poland's former vice minister of education, Maciej Jakubowski, learned about his country's high-flying results on the latest round of international student achievement tests, he was relieved.
A decade earlier, the PISA tests had found that Poland’s students sat roughly equal to their counterparts in Hungary and Slovakia in terms of math achievement. Now, they ranked alongside Finland, Canada and Belgium. In terms of their overall achievement across multiple subjects, Poland's students had jumped ahead of those in the United States.
The numbers seemed to transcend decades of offensive stereotypes about the intelligence of Polish people and the fitness of the country’s economic reforms.
"The increase is very impressive," said PISA coordinator Andreas Schleicher.
Over the last decade, Poland reduced its proportion of low-level math performers from 22 percent to 14 percent and increased its share of top-performing math students from 10 percent to 17 percent. The rise in math scores was distributed evenly across the socioeconomic spectrum, meaning that rich and poor students increased their scores at the same rate.
For Poland’s educational reformists, the new scores reinforced their arguments that continued progress depends upon pressing ahead with politically controversial changes.
Just one month earlier, non-government petitioners forced the parliament to hold a referendum vote to repeal divisive school reforms that Jakubowski and others have cited as the cause of the country's rapid improvement: a major change in how school is structured, and the establishment of a core curriculum that emphasizes skills and thinking over rote memorization.
Reformists quickly seized on the PISA numbers as proof that their approach was working.
"We were surprised," said Jakubowski, who recently left the government. "We were not expecting the newest reforms to have such an immediate effect, but it seems that teachers reacted very quickly and students started learning differently immediately."
For decades, Poland's school system had revolved around sorting students early in life: The most promising students were marked for traditional education while the lower-achievers were placed on a vocational path.
That system was altered in 1999, as Polish officials delayed the splitting of students between educational and vocational tracks by one year. As part of that shift, Poland created middle schools, known as "Gimnazjum," or gymnasium. Building these new schools meant that students stayed together and learned the same things for an additional year. According to OECD, that gave disadvantaged students a better chance of getting into secondary school and, eventually, university: Between 1989 and 2011, participation in higher education quadrupled from 10 percent to 41.2 percent.
Around the same time, Poland developed a new national core curriculum and deregulated the textbook market, allowing teachers to choose their own textbooks. To track that liberalized teaching system, Poland instituted new standardized tests at the end of each phase of schooling.
"The external exams encouraged teachers and students alike to adapt their teaching and learning styles to the new reality," said Justyna Matejczyk, principal of the Nicolaus Copernicus Bilingual School in Warsaw. "The teachers who were employed at junior high schools often faced a completely new age group with its own specific behavioral and cognitive problems."
In 2009, the curriculum was again updated to emphasize critical-thinking skills over facts and straight memorization. The government organized the curriculum around standards that students were supposed to learn by a certain age. Beyond that framework, teachers and schools were free to develop their own curricula in the hopes of creating more customized instruction.
The reforms were costly -- between 1999 and 2009, Poland increased its education expenditures by 104 percent. Over time, schools became more autonomous: Local governments made budgeting decisions and principals could set teacher pay. On average, teachers' salaries doubled, as did the percentage of teachers with university degrees.
"We cannot say for sure whether it's those reforms that led to the kind of improvement that you have seen," Schleicher said, while calling them "a kind of plausible explanation."
Almost 15 years after they were introduced, Poland's reforms are still polarizing. "It's very difficult to change something that was there for many, many years," Jakubowski said. The government's biggest mistake, he said, was implementing both sets of reforms too quickly, and without "convincing people that reform is needed. We are now paying the cost of this."
Most of the recent pushback, Matejczyk said, stems from the traditionalists as well as questions around having 6-year-olds in primary schools. While she thinks the reforms did more good than harm, she says Poland still struggles with large class sizes and could benefit from "more emphasis on promoting ethically informed attitudes."
"PISA is showing that we have very good teachers and very good schools," Jakubowski said. "It was a highly political issue, but fortunately the new results supported our view and convinced many people that lower secondary schools are very effective. The vote didn't pass."
-- Joy Resmovits reporting from New York
SPAIN: An Educational Abyss
In Spain, the latest student achievement results were received as evidence of a wound that is bleeding dry the Spanish educational system.
Recent years of economic catastrophe have seen sharp cuts to public education as the government grapples with deficits, and as reformists press for greater accountability of teachers. The PISA data seemed to confirm that students have yet to improve.
In mathematics, Spanish students secured 25th place out of the 34 industrialized countries of the OECD, and came in significantly below average in reading and science. All of this continued a trend that has been seen for years, provoking a generalized sense of grief and astonishment on editorial pages, where pundits competed with one another to outdo their criticisms of the Spanish educational system.
The data brought home an especially worrisome truth of widening inequality -- between the northern regions and the southern regions; between the richest and the poorest.
"The unresolved matter is a change of the educational model," said the secretary of state for education, Montserrat Gomendio. He aims to provide educational centers with more autonomy while implementing a national standard testing regimen.
An analyst on the PISA team, Pablo Zoido, pointed to the results as proof that Spain "must continue reforming" if it doesn’t want to remain one of the tail-end countries of the OECD. A reform to ensure that professors improve, he contends, would lead to Spanish universities being more attractive to students "of higher quality."
The Spanish Confederation of Associations of Fathers and Mothers of Students, a movement that has opposed budget cuts in Spain, portrayed the results very differently, pointing to the PISA data as the bad fruit of austerity.
"Maintaining the same investment from years ago would have produced better results," said the group’s president, Jesús María Sánchez, adding that cuts in funding have delivered "the increase in inequality."
-- Guillermo Rodríguez reporting from Madrid
FRANCE: Three Decades of Inequality
If the PISA numbers tell a tale, French students are slipping. The data show that France dropped two places to 25th out of the 65 participating countries.
Perhaps more uncomfortable for the French was the finding that inequality has widened. While the number of high-achieving students remained stable, the number of pupils who are struggling increased.
"The correlation between socioeconomic background and performance is much more pronounced than in most OECD countries," the PISA report said. "When you come from a disadvantaged background, you clearly have fewer chances of succeeding than in 2003."
Yet for the incoming minister of education, Vincent Peillon, a Socialist, these poor results may be a blessing: They add pressure for the major education reforms he outlined last April in the name of reducing inequality.
Not least, Peillon aims to increase the number of young children entering school -- a factor the PISA data finds correlates to later achievement. The number of 3-year-olds going to school in France actually fell from 30 percent to 12 percent between 2000 and 2012, a trend Peilon now aims to reverse.
Another issue the government is tackling is a tendency to have students repeat grades, which exacerbates inequality while inflating the public tab for education. Peillon said he now intends to reduce grade repetition by half.
In a sense, Peillon is merely continuing a fight against inequality that has been the cornerstone of French education policy since the election of Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981. His government created so-called Priority Education Zones that receive an outsized share of public support. More than three decades later, the results are definitively mixed, with high turnover at the schools inside the zones and achievement still divided.
The latest PISA data both confirms that reality while perhaps reinforcing the political dynamic required to continue the campaign to close the gap.
-- Stanislas Kraland reporting from Paris