VISIONS OF PISA: All hail our new national Pisa Day!


Part 1—From Friedman over to Ravitch: In this post-journalistic nation, the PISA is now a cult.

The PISA’s official status became clear just last week. In part, this occurred with the adoption of “PISA Day,” a national day of mourning and false remembrance which was widely observed across the land.

“In the U.S., the lackluster [PISA] results will be marked by great fanfare,” the Huffington Post reported. “On Tuesday, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD researcher who created the exam, will hand the results to Duncan, the education secretary, in a long, glitzy Newseum ceremony known as PISA Day.”

(In its report, the Huffington Post made a series of overstatements and misstatements drawn from the PISA’s official poop sheets. So it goes as the somewhat shaky PISA comes to rule the land.)

Needless to say, PISA Day had to be ratified at the Newseum! That said, the Huffington Post was hardly alone in its adoption of PISA perspectives. Across the press corps, pundit elites recited the scripts which emerged from this Paris-based cult.

Consider the way Thomas L. Friedman began his column in yesterday’s New York Times. We include the column’s title, which can almost be read as a bit of an irony:
FRIEDMAN (12/8/13): Can’t We Do Better?

The latest results in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compare how well 15-year-olds in 65 cities and countries can apply math, science and reading skills to solve real-world problems were released last week, and it wasn’t pretty for the home team. Andreas Schleicher, who manages PISA, told the Department of Education: “Three years ago, I came here with a special report benchmarking the U.S. against some of the best performing and rapidly improving education systems. Most of them have pulled further ahead, whether it is Brazil that advanced from the bottom, Germany and Poland that moved from adequate to good, or Shanghai and Singapore that moved from good to great. The math results of top-performer Shanghai are now two-and-a-half school years ahead even of those in Massachusetts—itself a leader within the U.S.”
Three years ago, our Dearest Leader “came here with a special report!”

Friedman’s opening paragraph ran 137 words. Eighty-two of those words were a long quotation from the rather self-confident Chairman Andreas, widely loved leader of this newest cult.

We have never seen any sign that Friedman knows much about public schools. (There’s no particular reason why he should.) He does know who he’s expected to quote, and revere, in his high-profile columns.

In yesterday’s column, Friedman quoted Andreas the Giant at remarkable length. In the following passage, he was even willing to quote Dear Leader as he made one of his more obscure pronouncements—and as he served some genuine marshmallow fluff:
FRIEDMAN: So now let’s look at the latest PISA. It found that the most successful students are those who feel real “ownership” of their education. In all the best performing school systems, said Schleicher, “students feel they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes and that education will make a difference for their future.” The PISA research, said Schleicher, also shows that “students whose parents have high expectations for them tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn.” The highest performing PISA schools, he added, all have “ownership” cultures—a high degree of professional autonomy for teachers in the classrooms, where teachers get to participate in shaping standards and curriculum and have ample time for continuous professional development. So teaching is not treated as an industry where teachers just spew out and implement the ideas of others, but rather is “a profession where teachers have ownership of their practice and standards, and hold each other accountable,” said Schleicher.
Let’s see if we were able to follow those varied pronouncements:

If we’re reading that passage correctly, Dear Leader tells us that parents who have high expectations tend to get better results from their kids! Also, students who feel they can make a difference will end up making a difference!

Or something like that. After making these pronouncements, Schleicher swam the Rhine.

As for Friedman, he also quoted Schleicher decreeing that teachers should “have ownership of their practice and standards.” Do you know what that pronouncement meant? Neither does anyone else who read Friedman’s column!

Whatever! All through the column, Friedman keeps quoting Dear Leader as he makes fuzzy or pointless pronouncements. In a column of 885 words, we count at least 268 words which come directly from the mouth of Chairman Andreas.

We’re not sure if we’ve ever seen a column so devoted to quoting the words of one person. That said, Friedman adopts some of the basic approaches of the new cult all by himself.

Most notably—and it ought to be very notable—most notably, Friedman cites the results from the 2012 PISA. But he never so much as mentions the results from the 2011 TIMSS or the 2013 NAEP.

That decision should be very notable.

Has Friedman ever heard of the TIMSS or the NAEP? We wouldn’t place money on that. But what happens when unschooled pundits disappear the TIMSS and the NAEP? A one-sided portrait appears!

In many ways, the NAEP may be our most reliable national testing program—more reliable than the PISA or the TIMSS. And uh-oh! Especially after disaggregation, NAEP scores seem to show substantial academic progress over the course of the past several decades.

TIMSS scores seem to suggest the same general pattern. But so what? As people like Friedman restrict themselves to pronouncements from the new cult, two-thirds of our data get thrown down the well! In the process, we are left in the hands of our newest Dear Leader.

All week long, we’ll examine the ways the cult of the PISA ruled the press corps last week. Here’s the most intriguing point:

We liberals now have our own standard reactions to the scripts which drive the mainstream press concerning international tests. But even in our own standard scripting, we tend to bow low to the PISA!

As a general matter, Diane Ravitch stands in opposition to the cult of the PISA. If we liberals have our own leader in this area, it is clearly Ravitch.

Ravitch made some perfectly decent points in her responses to PISA Day. She also adopted some perspectives which strike us as extremely unhelpful, even borderline uncaring and cruel.

Beyond that, she continued to encourage some claims which are flatly bogus.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider the way Ravitch adopted one standard PISA framework in response to the new scores. Some of her reactions were right on target.

Other reactions were not.

Tomorrow: Can anyone here play this game?

Advanced students may want to read ahead: For Ravitch’s basic reactions, see this blog post, My View of the PISA Scores.

For advanced writing students, undertake this assignment. Rewrite Visions of Johanna using this revised first line:

"Ain’t it just like the PISA to play tricks when we’re trying to be so quiet?"


  1. High parental expectations may take us someplace we don't want to go. Years ago, I heard a discussion among teachers in the Irvine (CA) public schools about whether to report a family for child abuse. They were making their son sleep in the garage because he had gotten a B instead of an A on an exam. The child agreed with the punishment and felt ashamed that he had let his family down. Similarly, when I was in middle school, I encountered a friend crying in the hallway. I asked him what was wrong. He said that he had been unable to get his math teacher to increase the grade on a recent test. He had gotten a B+ but argued for an A. I told him a B+ was a good grade and asked why he was so upset. He said I didn't understand. His father would beat him for getting less than an A. Today, that boy is a professor at MIT.

    In both examples, the families were immigrants to the US. Their attitudes about acceptable grades are not those of most families. Neither are their punishment approaches. Children do fear physical punishment and they will work harder to avoid it. It will make them better prepared and they will be more successful. This used to be the way even US education was conducted but we lost our stomach for beating our children (and for allowing teachers to hit kids). That is not true in some other countries. Do we really want to emulate them in that respect? I suspect we are willing to accept slightly lower grades in exchange for emphasizing other forms of motivation besides fear.

  2. "Ownership" is a common idea in every field, not just education. Some years back, Albertson's super markets ran an ad campaign about this idea. E.g., one ad showed an employee who was a butcher proclaiming that the store is Alberson's, "but the meat market is mine."

    Go back to the days of Little House on the Prairie, when teachers had true ownership. The had to design and conduct a course to obtain the best results they could. They had great freedom to teach as they thought best. They had to deal with problem students as they thought best.

    Today, all kinds of extraneous government programs have sapped real ownership. Outside forces set the structure. Zillions of niggling regulations must be followed. Outside tests determine the teacher's effectiveness. Now Common Core is being imposed on teachers, for better or for worse.

    BTW most of these restrictions on teachers' autonomy come from liberal policies that Friedman supports. He wants ownership, yet he also wants the programs that weaken ownership

    1. So why are scores rising?

    2. There were no "courses" in those one-room school houses on the prairies. There were unmarried women who supervised children reading from textbooks and working math problems on slates. They didn't lecture. There were no class discussions. They did the exercises in McGuffey's Reader at whatever level they could while the teacher corrected their errors, then they went on to the next book. No discussion, no demos, no games, no exercises, no class projects. Also, no speaking out, no questions and certainly no opinions expressed by students or teachers. No unruly behavior or kids were (1) hit, (2) expelled immediately, (3) parents were informed and kids were beaten. Most kids left as soon as they were big enough to do serious work. An entrance exam had to be passed to go on to high school but most kids didn't stay in school once literacy and basic math were learned. Teachers worked at the sufferance of a committee of local businessmen, were largely unpaid (or got room & board if male) and had no latitude about what they taught or did in the classroom. Deviating from basic lessons was considered bad teaching and the teacher was fired.

    3. According to the CTA (California Teacher's Association), 70% of its members support common core.

    4. "Zillions of regulation?" Please.

      But yes, Common Core IS being imposed. Whether or not teachers even know what's in it, or if they "support" it.

      If Common Core proceeds as intended, what follows will be perhaps an even more massive testing regime. To some people (Andreas Schleicher, presumably) more testing is a good thing, especially if the tests get at "critical thinking," as Common Core enthusiasts allege its testing will. Perhaps. Perhaps noy.

      Consider that two of the biggest proponents of Common Core are the ACT and College Board. Both tout their tests relentlessly even though they're mostly bogus. The SAT, for examaple, does very little in the way of predicting college "success" and mostly measures family income.

      Worse, the core purpose of the Common Core is to enhance American "economic competitiveness." Yet the U.S. already IS internally competitive and when it drops in the World Economic Forum's rankings it's because of stupid economic decisions adopted by presidents and legislators, who are, allegedly, among the nation's
      "best and brightest."


  3. Seriously now, do you actually believe that butcher existed outside the ad campaign?

    Do you understand that The Little House on the Prairie is fiction?

    Answers to these questions will go a long way in my understanding of your commnets.

    Thanks in advance.

  4. deadrat, The Albertson's butcher ad was offered as an example to illustrate the concept of "ownership". The usefulness of the example is the same whether he was a real butcher or an actor. The ad showed that Albertson's wanted to encourage a feeling of ownership among their employees, and it showed that the store believed that employee "ownership" was a selling point.

    According to wiki, the Little House books are "based on decades-old memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood... and are generally classified as fiction rather than as autobiography when categorized in libraries and bookstores." I don't think the exact amount of fictionalizing affects the point I was making, namely the contrast between the ownership taken by a frontier school teacher vs. the huge amount of outside meddling faced by teachers today.

    1. Decades old memories are not generally reliable, especially with respect to details.

    2. The books weren't the same as the TV show either. It sounds like you are talking about the TV show because there wasn't much about schooling in the books. Also, I'd be surprised if someone male, of any age, had read any of them.

    3. Maybe there's one such male. Of course, we only have the suggestion here that he's read the retro-engineered into a volume Little House in the Ozarks and, perhaps, some other of her columns:

      [BEGIN QUOTE]>>>>>WILDER, EIGHTY YEARS BACK: In a series of brilliant columns, Wilder explored the odd psychology of the emerging Product Culture. From a column titled “The Things That Matter:”

      WILDER (January 1924): We are so overwhelmed with things these days that our lives are all, more or less, cluttered. I believe it is this, rather than a shortness of time, that gives us that feeling of hurry and almost helplessness. Everyone is hurrying and usually just a little late. Notice the faces of the people who rush past on the streets or on our country roads! They nearly all have a strained, harassed look, and anyone you meet will tell you there is no time for anything anymore.

      Life is so complicated! The day of the woman whose only needed tool was a hairpin is long since passed. But we might learn something from her and her methods even yet, for life would be pleasanter with some of the strain removed—if it were no longer true, as someone has said, that “things are in the saddle and rule mankind.”


      This was a recurrent theme. In “What Became of the Time We Saved?” Wilder penned the best joke that we know of:

      WILDER (April 1917): A few days ago, with several others, I attended the meeting of a woman’s club in a neighboring town. We went in a motor car, taking less than an hour for the trip on which we used to spend three hours before the days of motors cars; but we did not arrive at the time appointed nor were we the latest comers by any means. We hurried through the proceedings; we hurried in our friendly exchanges of conversation; we hurried away; and we hurried all the way home where we arrived late as usual.

      What became of the time the motor car saved us? We was everyone late and in a hurry? I used to drive leisurely over to this town with a team, spend a pleasant afternoon, and reach home not much later than I did this time, and all with a sense of there being time enough, instead of a feeling of rush and hurry. We have so many machines and so many helps, in one way and another, to save time; and yet I wonder what we do with the time we save. Nobody seems to have any!


      Three months later, she was at it again: “We heap up around us things that we do not need as the crow makes piles of glittering pebbles.” Thank goodness this brilliant observer didn’t live to see the Times heaping up useless columns.<<<<<[END QUOTE]

  5. DAinCA,

    I know that you think the Albertson's ad illustrates the "concept of 'ownership'"; it doesn't. It's propaganda designed to manipulate you into thinking that an Albertson's butcher is there to serve your interests and not his employer's. The ad says nothing about Albertson's attitudes towards its employees. Neither does it say anything about employee ownership as a selling point because we don't really know whether Albertson's cares about employee ownership. What they care about is making you think they care. I'm guessing you don't see the difference.

    You don't think the "exact amount of fictionalizing" affects your point because you don't really care about facts. You've got a narrative about the Golden Age of Frontier Schooling and the Dystopian Era of Outside Meddling, and you're gonna stick to it even though you know little to nothing about schooling then or now. Except, of course, for what LIW made up for you. It doesn't even occur to you how absurd it is to extol stories of schooling in 1870's Kansas, as though these had any relevance to today's consolidated school districts.

    1. When a teacher goes off the reservation and teaches a different curriculum, the children are at a disadvantage. In order to teach special material something would have to be left out of the regular curriculum. That means they will be handicapped when they get to the next grade without preparation for the content there. They will have a difficult time catching up if their family moves to a different school district. When something special, personal to the teacher, is taught, the rest of the material planned for that year must be more hastily taught (to catch up) and children will not have sufficient time to learn it well. Any integration between the teacher's special material and the rest of the curriculum will be accidental. Opportunities for reinforcement will not be there. The teacher and kids may have fun but how much will they learn? The teacher may be more fulfilled (via his or her "ownership") but will the kids benefit?

      When teachers not only ignore the curriculum but introduce their own special belief systems, opinions and experiences, the result may enrich the curriculum or it may provide learning experiences the parents don't want. That's what happens when teachers propagandize, or waste student time reminiscing, or editorialize politically or engage in religious evangelism. These things infringe on the rights of children whose views are diverse and whose families do not want that teaching. I know many families who homeschool because they fear that kind of "ownership" of the classroom. All those zillions of regulations help ensure that the classroom will be safe and beneficial for all kids. Most teachers only resent them when they have too many demands and too little time (coupled with inadequate pay and little job security due to layoffs).


    2. This was such an informative, troll-free commentary thread.
      It was a breath of fresh air to hear all the new voices in the troll free breeze. I am glad we got the Little House issue settled. I never shop at Albertson's though, and preferred "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" to "Little House."

    3. Albertson's ad ...[is] designed to manipulate you into thinking that an Albertson's butcher is there to serve your interests and not his employer's.

      deadrat: The employers' interests are my interests. Albertson's, like any business, strives to satisfy its customers. Otherwise, they'll buy their meat somewhere else.

    4. So if the butcher is French, will Albertson's let him sell Silver, Trigger, and Seabiscuit steaks?

    5. DAinCA,

      What is it with you, Stockholm Syndrome? Corporate interests overlap your interests, sure. All things being equal, a corporation would like to have you as a satisfied customer, and you'd like to be a satisfied customer. But things are rarely equal. The overriding corporate interest is the next quarter's bottom line. Sometimes that involves making you happy, and sometimes that involves blowing smoke up your ass, as with the Albertson's ad.

      Here's a minor example. It's in my interest and Albertson's interest that they store all their poultry below 40°F for the obvious reason. It's in my interest to be able to distinguish between frozen poultry and fresh poultry, that is chicken that's never been frozen. It's in Albertson's interest to sell me as much frozen poultry at fresh-poultry prices as they can. Thus they (legally) label as fresh, chickens that have been chilled to 26°F, six degrees below the freezing point of water. And they (legally) don' t label at all chickens that have been thawed after being cooled to temperatures between 0°F and 26°F.

  6. Very insightful post. Nobody counts words in columns better than Bob.

    1. It's not the time sink for him that you're imagining.

    2. You mistake me for someone who is interested in time rather than marvelling at fifth grade math skills.

  7. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy" the teacher beat the students with a horse whip. My son refused to go on letting me read it to him after hearing that chapter.

    1. As I recall, the teacher was a seemingly-weak person threatened by three older boys, bullies, who were going to beat him. He turns the table on the bullies by thrashing them with a bullwhip.

      Nowadays, the bullies would be sent to sensitivity training and given large doses of Ritalin on their way to social promotions; the teacher would have to take an anger management class before being fired for not falsifying results on state-mandated tests.

    2. Those were the days, eh?