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Anthony Cody, in his Living in Dialogue blog, has recently addressed the strategy common among "No Excuses" Reformers (NER) using a corporate playbook to render all that is public private: Cody identifies "division [as] the key weapon that reformers will be using in the years to come."

Divide and conquer has never been more powerful and subtle than it is in the education reform debate, driven by Big Money (Bill Gate), faux-progressives (Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan), and tepid political leadership (Barack Obama).

To the strategies aimed at dividing workers against themselves, the 99% against each other, and whites against the rising tide of Americans of color, I would add the constant shifts in commitments and language that keep all the rest of us in a perpetual state of reaction.

One of the key and effective moves in that playbook is over 150 years old: Demonize public schools. A recent commentary by Arthur Levine highlights how the NER agenda combines divisive discourse and ideas with demonizing public schools in his claim that even the top students in the U.S. pale against international comparisons.

As we should expect, however, combine popular media, NER agendas, and a little bit of data and you get a whole lot of mischaracterizations, information that divides by triggering what appeals to some for the benefit of a few.

Keeping in mind that simple comparisons of test data are often terribly distorting, that ranking is almost always oversimplifying, and that international comparisons are fraught with problems of fair comparisons (see Gerald Bracey, Bruce Baker, and Matthew DiCarlo for help on these problems), Stephen Krashen has examined Levine's claim, exposing that the claims are likely more about dividing than truly engaging with how U.S. public education needs to be reformed. Krashen's analysis follows below.

PISA 2009 Reading Test Results: The US does quite well, controlling for SES. And maybe American scores are “just right.”

by Stephen Krashen

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Arthur Levine discusses the performance of high socio-economic status (SES) students on the PISA math examination, thus controlling for the effect of poverty (the PISA is an exam given to 15 year olds in countries throughout the world). Levine concludes that high social class American students fall in “the middle of the pack” in PISA mathematics.

Levine’s definition of high social class was having at least one parent with a college education. After reading Levine’s article, I decided to do my own analysis. I used a different measure of SES: the PISA index of economics, social and cultural status, and I looked at reading scores for students in 66 countries who were at the 75th percentile of this measure, in other words the upper quarter of socio-economic status.  

According to my calculations, students in only 12 “countries and economies” scored significantly higher than American students on PISA reading and students in 44 “countries and economies” had significantly lower scores. Levine says the US scored in the “middle of pack” in math. Controlling for poverty, they certainly did not score in the middle of the pack in reading but were well within the upper quarter. (See note 1 below; I was unable to find the data necessary to do an analysis of mathematics scores controlling for SES in this way.)

Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon has reported that countries that score high on international tests score low on measures of “perceived entrepreneurial capabilities.”  This result is consistent with research cited by D. K. Simonton in his book Genius, Creativity and Leadership: an optimal amount of formal education is best for creative accomplishment in science and the arts and humanities - not too much and not too little. Simonton also concludes that that those who achieve high scholastic honors do not always attain eminence in their work.

Maybe US scores are just right.

Note 1: American students scored 569 on the PISA reading test, with a standard error of 4.6.  As mentioned, 12 “countries and economies” scored significantly higher (i.e. their scores fell outside the 95% confidence interval around the US’ score, 560 to 578).  

Of the 12 scoring higher than the US, several were not countries. Shanghai is a city, with 23 million people, about 1.5% of the population of China and is a clear outlier: Even Shanghai students in the lowest quartile in socio-economic status scored 500, close to the overall average for all OECD countries.  

Singapore is considered a “city-state” and has a population of five million. Hong Kong is a “special administrative region (SAR)” of China with a population of seven million. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have fewer people than Los Angeles County, states of Michigan or Georgia, all around 10 million.

Thus, only nine actual countries did better than the US. Note also that other countries doing better than the US also have small populations: Finland, 5.5 million, New Zealand, 4.5 million, and Belgium, 11 million. 


Levine, A. 2012. The Suburban Education Gap. Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2012.

Simonton, D.K. 1984. Genius, Creativity and Leadership. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

PISA 2009. Overcoming Social Background. Programme for International Student Assessment.

Zhao, Y. 2012. Flunking innovation and creativity. Phi Delta Kappan 94 (1): 56-60.

The scores: (from: Table 11.1.1, PISA 2009, p. 152).

613 (2.8)
597 (2.2)
597 (2.1)
New Zealand
595 (2.8)
595 (3.4)
Hong Kong
592 (2.5)
590 (3.0)
588 (1.7)
584 (2.7)
583 (2.2)
575 (5.4)
572 (4.0)
569 (3.0)
569 (4.6)
568 (2.9)
567 (2.8)
567 (2.0)
565 (3.2)
562 (2.8)
561 (3.2)
560 (4.5)
559 (2.8)
559 (3.6)
556 (1.7)
555 (2.9)
554 (3.4)
554 (2.8)
551 (3.4)
550 (3.1)
550 (1.7)
547 (1,7)
545 (3.3)
Czech Rep
545 (3.3)
545 (3.3)
Czech Rep
545 (3.3)
Slovak Rep
543 (2.7)
541 (3.3)
541 (3.3)
540 (1.4)
539 (3.1)
536 (2.4)
530 (3.1)
522 (4.5)
Russian Fed.
519 (3.2)
512 (6.5)
501 (2.5)
496 (2.3)
495 (3.1)
488 (4.7)
485 (1.9)
474 (3.9)
473 (7.1)
473 (3.9)
469 (2.6)
468 (3.5)
462 (3.4)
458 (4.8)
452 (4.2)
450 (1.4)
447 (4.6)
437 (5.2)
436 (7.7)
413 (4.0)
377 (4.2)

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 05:38 AM PST.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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