Sean Slade

Thoughts from #PISA2012

Whatever differences we may read in the PISA results that were released today, here's a sampling of quotes from the U.S. report (PDF) from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to put things in perspective. Each could be a blog post on their own and each serves up some interesting pieces of information.


Students who did not surpass the most basic PISA performance level were not a random group. The results show that socioeconomic disadvantage has a strong impact on student performance in the United States. … In other words, in the United States, two students from different socioeconomic backgrounds vary much more in their learning outcomes than is normally the case in these other countries. (p. 29)

Socioeconomic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries.(p. 29)

The United States is one of the countries with the strongest correlation between schools with a student population that is predominantly socioeconomically disadvantaged and a more negative school disciplinary climate. (p. 35)


In fact after the socioeconomic background of students is accounted for, immigrant students outperform non-immigrant students by 15 PISA score points and this relative performance of immigrant students has improved over time. (p. 31)


Most of the students who perform poorly in PISA come from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds, and yet some of their disadvantaged peers beat the odds and excel in PISA. These “resilient” students show that overcoming socioeconomic barriers to achievement is possible. (p. 31)

In the United States, 5% of students can be considered resilient. … However, in Hong Kong-China, Macao-China, Shanghai-China and Viet Nam, the share of students who excel at school despite their disadvantaged background is about three times higher than it is in the United States. (p. 31)

Achievement Gap and Economy

Bringing the United States up to the average performance of Finland could result in gains on the order of USD 103 trillion. Narrowing the achievement gap by bringing all students to a baseline level of proficiency for the OECD (a PISA score of about 400) could increase the GDP of the United States by USD 72 trillion, according to historical growth relationships. (p. 33)

Learning Environment

Schools and countries where students work in a climate characterized by expectations of high performance and the readiness to invest effort, good teacher-student relations and high teacher morale tend to achieve better results on average across countries, and particularly in some countries. (p. 33)

PISA also shows that the socioeconomic background of students and schools and key features of the learning environment are closely inter-related. (p. 33)


Student truancy tends to be negatively related to a system’s overall performance. In the United States some 20% of students reported that they had skipped a day of school in the previous two weeks, above the OECD average of 15% and in contrast with Colombia, Hong Kong-China, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein, Macao-China, the Netherlands, Shanghai-China, Switzerland and Chinese Taipei, where fewer than 5% of students did so. (p.33)

School Climate

Schools in the United States with better average performance tend to have a more positive student-teacher relationship, even after accounting for the socioeconomic status and demographic background of students and schools and various other school characteristics. (p.34)

As in the majority of countries, there is a positive relationship between teacher-student relations and student performance in the United States. (p.34)

The disciplinary climate in the classroom and school can also affect learning. In the US 25% of students who reported the poorest disciplinary climate are almost twice as likely to be poor performers. (p. 34)

In virtually all school systems, schools with more negative disciplinary climates tend to have a higher incidence of student truancy. … Also, schools whose principals reported that teachers’ behavior negatively affects learning to a great extent also tend to be those whose principals reported that their teachers’ morale is low. The United States is one of the countries where this relationship is particularly strong. (p. 35)

Similarly, the United States is one of the countries with the strongest correlation between schools with a student population that is predominantly socio-economically disadvantaged and a more negative school disciplinary climate. (p. 35)

School Governance and School Choice

It is best to read this for yourselves, as the data and findings are detailed; however:

PISA shows that school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy, even after accounting for countries’ national income. (p. 40)

But this finding is consistent with research showing that school choice—and, by extension, school competition—is related to greater levels of segregation in the school system, which may have adverse consequences for equity in learning opportunities and outcomes. (p. 40)

Grade Repetition

Grade repetition tends to be negatively related to equity, and this is especially obvious when the relationship is examined across OECD countries (OECD 2013d, Figure IV.1.4). Across OECD countries, 20% of the variation in the impact of students’ socioeconomic status on their mathematics performance can be explained by differences in the proportion of students who repeated a grade, even after accounting for per capita GDP. At the same time, across OECD countries, grade repetition is unrelated to the system’s overall performance. (p. 42)


Effective school systems require the right combination of trained and talented personnel, adequate educational resources and facilities, and motivated students ready to learn. But performance on international comparisons cannot simply be tied to money, since only Luxembourg spends more per student than the United States. The results for the United States reflect a range of inefficiencies. (p. 45)

It is noteworthy that spending patterns in many of the world’s successful education systems are markedly different from those in the United States. Successful systems such as Canada, Finland and Shanghai-China invest money where the challenges are greatest, rather than making the resources that are devoted to schools dependent on the wealth of the local communities in which schools are located; and they put in place incentives and support systems that attract the most talented school teachers into the most difficult classrooms. (p. 45)

And, lastly, my favorite PISA quote from Peter Mortimore at the 2013 Whole Child Virtual Conference:

“PISA is a great servant but a bad master.”

Always a salient point to remember. I’m sure there are other bits of data and information that was missed, but all in all a fascinating read.

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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