The results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in—an international standardized test of fifteen-year-olds and the first look at how countries compare post-pandemic—and the picture they paint of American education is disheartening. Here are four trends that you need to know:
1. U.S. math scores collapsed and reading stagnated.
The topline result that’s been repeated across U.S. media showcases our tanking math scores, which were “among the lowest ever measured by PISA in mathematics” for the U.S. While the pandemic surely caused a distinct collapse, this score merely continues a decades-long decline in math achievement according to PISA scores. Which beggars the question, what’s causing this?
Before speculating a guess, there are two caveats that need addressing. First, there are problems with PISA results that warrant hesitancy when drawing broad conclusions, including a smaller sample size of U.S. students than NAEP, that PISA only measures achievement of fifteen-year-olds, and that not all countries educate all students through high school. That being said, the PISA declines in math compares U.S. results to previous years, not other countries, and they track with our own national NAEP data, which showed the lowest math achievement in decades.
Second, reading achievement largely stagnated between 2018 and 2022 despite school closures. Perhaps a surprise to some, this stability in reading scores tracks with what we know about literacy versus math achievement. After mastering the basics of decoding and phonics, background knowledge and vocabulary largely determine a child’s reading comprehension, much of which a child garners from their family background and factors outside of a school’s control. Conversely, most students receive their math instruction from school, and so there will be a much stronger causation between school closures and math achievement.
However, that doesn’t explain the preceding two decades of downward trending math scores. I tentatively advance two explanations.
First, in the 1990s and 2000s, accountability and standards-based reforms notably raised math achievement, especially among poor and minority student populations. The story of education reform since then has been a slow dismantling of our testing, standards, and accountability regime.
Second, where early reading instruction is a rare place of sanity in American education, math instruction is a funhouse mirror room of absurdity. Entire states like California and individual districts such as Jefferson County—a trend which The Atlantic predicts will go national—are adopting reformist, discovery-based learning standards, a pseudo-scientific approach to math instruction not unlike the whole-language debacle that left a generation of students struggling to read.
It would be impossible to draw a direct line of causality between these two trends and our declining PISA scores, but they do point towards tangible, implementable reforms that could begin a course correction.
2. We’re failing our advanced students.
Education reform has a near-singular focus on poor-performing students. Advanced students get cast off with an assurance that “they’ll be fine.” Well, they’re not doing fine.
Hidden in the data about our mathematics averages is an equally disheartening statistic about our advanced learners. Only 7 percent of U.S. students scored a 5 or 6, the equivalent of “advanced.” Compare that to nations such as Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, where 20–40 percent of students achieved the highest scores.
Periodically, throughout our nation’s history—immediately following Sputnik, for example—the U.S. took the education of high-achieving students seriously. But decades of policies and reforms have relegated advanced education to a place of skepticism. Only two-thirds of districts offer any such programming, and those that do provide little more than meager in-class supplements or optional after school activities.
If we want to maintain a competitive advantage on the international stage, we need to focus on advanced learners, too, our future medical researchers, tech entrepreneurs, CEOs, and societal leaders. Seeking policies and reforms that could provide high achievers the challenge they need, a working group of education experts convened last year to develop a report that summarizes the research on advanced education and recommends best practices that could help us to better compete with top-achieving nations like South Korea and Singapore.
3. Behavior remains a problem.
I must admit, student surveys on behavior actually surprised me. Thirteen percent of students reported not feeling safe in hallways, cafeterias, bathrooms, and other school locations. Nine percent reported feeling unsafe in classrooms themselves. And 14 percent reported that they cannot work well in most or all lessons due to a “disciplinary climate that is not favorable to learning.”
I’m surprised because I admittedly expected them to be worse. In other surveys, teachers are reporting that they’re witnessing violence between students and towards teachers at twice the rate since the pandemic. In others, classroom discipline has toppled pay for the number one concern among teachers. Considering such data and the asinine trends in America towards soft-on-consequences approaches to school discipline, that only 13 percent of students reported to PISA that they feel unsafe was, again, better than I expected.
Nonetheless, the number of U.S. students reporting that they feel unsafe in schools was higher than the OECD average. One of the biggest detrimental factors to student learning is the presence of disruptive peers. I’m a proponent of phonics, curricular updates, instructional improvements, and the like, but these will mean little if our schools continue trending towards disorder. Kids can’t learn their phonemes if they can’t hear their teacher. Curricular and instruction are important, but behavior and order are primary. Schools can implement aspects of restorative justice or “positive behavioral interventions and supports” (PBIS), sure, but it’s imperative that they not dismantle disciplinary structures as they do so.
4. Phones are also a problem.
As professor of education Carl Hendrick pointed out, one thing that PISA scores make clear is that phones are detrimental to learning. Thirty percent of students across OECD countries report that they get distracted by phones in every math class, and 25 percent report getting distracted by other students’ phones. It seems that up to about an hour of usage, digital devices correlate with academic achievement but any more, and scores plummet. As stricter phone bans sweep the country (and European countries as well), these PISA surveys only confirm that such bans are a rare, positive fad.
As I finish this brief review, I’m almost hopeful, an admittedly rare thing for me when reflecting on American education. The problems facing us are daunting, but there are actionable policies that state education departments and individual districts could pursue to improve the education of our 75 million students. And then, on the day that PISA results are announced, when the U.S. Department of Education posts a video encouraging teachers and administrators to create space for students to get in touch with their inner “unicorn,” I retreat into my skepticism.