PISA And TIMSS: A Distinction Without A Difference?

Posted by on December 4, 2014

Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

Every year or two, the mass media is full of stories on the latest iterations of one of the two major international large scale assessments, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). What perplexes many is that the results of these two tests — both well-established and run by respectable, experienced organizations — suggest different conclusions about the state of U.S. mathematics education. Generally speaking, U.S. students do better on the TIMSS and poorly on the PISA, relative to their peers in other nations. Depending on their personal preferences, policy advocates can simply choose whichever test result is convenient to press their argument, leaving the general public without clear guidance.

Now, in one sense, the differences between the tests are more apparent than real. One reason why the U.S. ranks better on the TIMSS than the PISA is that the two tests sample students from different sets of countries. The PISA has many more wealthy countries, whose students tend to do better – hence, the U.S.’s lower ranking. It turns out that when looking at only the countries that participated in both the TIMSS and the PISA we find similar country rankings. There are also some differences in statistical sampling, but these are fairly minor. Read More »


College Attainment In The U.S. And Around The World

Posted by on October 16, 2012

A common talking point in circles in that college attainment in the U.S. used to be among the highest in the world, but is now ranked middling-to-low (the ranking cited is typically around 15th) among OECD nations. As is the case when people cite rankings on the PISA assessment, this is often meant to imply that the U.S. education system is failing and getting worse.*

The latter arguments are of course oversimplifications, given that college attendance and completion are complex phenomena that entail many factors, school and non-school. A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this post – obviously, the causes and “value” of a postsecondary education vary within and between nations, and are subject to all the usual limitations inherent in international comparisons.

That said, let’s just take a very quick. surface-level look at the latest OECD figures for college attainment (“tertiary education,” meaning associate-level, bachelor’s or advanced degree), which have recently been released for 2010. Read More »


Are Americans Exceptional In Their Attitudes Toward Government’s Role In Reducing Inequality?

Posted by on January 10, 2012

As discussed in a previous post, roughly half of Americans believe that government should take some active role in reducing income differences between rich and poor, though, as one would expect, this view is less prevalent among Republicans, more educated and higher earning survey respondents.

These data, however, lack a frame of reference. That is, they don’t tell us whether American support for government redistribution is “high” or “low” compared with that in other nations. The conventional wisdom in this area is that Americans generally prefer a more limited government, especially when it comes to things like income redistribution.

It might therefore be interesting to take a quick look at how the U.S. stacks up against other nations in terms of these redistributive preferences. Read More »


Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

Posted by on October 28, 2011

Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community.” As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole,” which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact. Read More »


Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

Posted by on July 7, 2011

A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor? Read More »


The Un-American Foundations Of Our Education Debate

Posted by on April 21, 2011

Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.

Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?

This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.

One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S. Read More »


Seize The Day?

Posted by on March 2, 2011

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched. Read More »


PISA For Our Time: A Balanced Look

Posted by on January 10, 2011

Press coverage of the latest PISA results over the past two months has almost been enough to make one want to crawl under the bed and hide. Over and over, we’ve been told that this is a “Sputnik moment,” that the U.S. among the lowest performing nations in the world, and that we’re getting worse.

Thankfully, these claims are largely misleading. Insofar as we’re sure to hear them repeated often over the next few years—at least until the next set of international results come in — it makes sense to try to correct the record (also see here and here).

But, first, I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better. Nevertheless, international comparisons of any kind are very difficult, and if we don’t pay careful attention to what the data are really telling us, it will be more difficult to figure out how to respond appropriately.

This brings me to three basic points about the 2009 PISA results that we need to bear in mind. Read More »


Talking About But Not Learning From Finland

Posted by on October 5, 2010

Finland’s education system has become an international celebrity. Their remarkable results are being trumpeted, usually in the “What can we learn from them?” context. Yet a lot of the recent discussion about what we can learn – as far as concrete policies – has been rather shallow. 

Right now, the factoid that is getting the most play is that Finnish teachers come from the “top ten percent” of those entering the labor force, whereas U.S. teachers don’t. But without knowing the reasons behind this difference, this fact is not particularly useful.

Although there has been some interesting research on these issues (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I still haven’t really seen a simple comparison of Finnish vs. American policies that can help us understand what they’re doing right (and perhaps what we’re doing wrong). I am not an expert in comparative education, but I have assembled a few quick lists of features and policies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we do everything Finland does, and cease doing everything they don’t. It’s very difficult to isolate the unique effects of each of these policies. Also, more broadly, Finland is small (less than six million residents), homogeneous, and their welfare state keeps poverty and inequality at one of the lowest levels among all developed nations (the U.S. is among the highest).

But if we are going to learn anything from the Finnish system, it is important to lay out the concrete differences (I inevitably missed things, so please leave a comment if you have additions). Read More »


Educational Unilateralism

Posted by on September 24, 2010

In New York City this week, a special “plenary summit” of the UN General Assembly met to encourage the world to step up support for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) first okayed by the UN in 2000. These eight goals – which include slashing poverty, combating disease, fighting hunger, protecting the environment, and boosting education – had a 2015 target date for their achievement. Ten years on, the summit reviewed progress and urged participants to speed up the pace.While the eradication of disease and hunger was named as the key priority, the nations of the world also recognized the crucial importance of education. Goal 2 focuses on the right of all kids to at least a primary school education. Goal 3 promotes the right of girls to have the same access to education as boys – a major problem in much of the developing world. 

Although the U.S. is the world’s largest donor country, surveys show that few Americans have heard about it. President Obama, who during his campaign pledged to fund a $2 billion Global Fund for Education, has done little – what with the financial crisis and debates over both the means and ends of foreign assistance programs getting in the way. In the meanwhile, critics call MDG little more than a laundry list of needs, with no real strategy on how to achieve them. Still, the goals are well worth reading, if only as a reflection of what the world believes (at least on paper) are the rock-bottom problems facing humanity in the 21st century. Read More »


Labor Day In Hell

Posted by on September 13, 2010

The new Albert Shanker Institute-supported report, The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, released on Labor Day by the human rights organization Freedom House, has received some notable attention in the press, both here and around the world. One photo essay in Foreign Policy, titled “Labor Day in Hell,” illustrates 14 of the worst-offending nations, among them Belarus, North Korea, and Sudan (see the screenshot below).

Indeed, the report, which examined the state of labor rights in the world for the year 2009, found serious violations of workers’ freedoms in all parts of the world except Western Europe. Countries were ranked on a five-category scale of Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive.

The United States was rated as Mostly Free—the same rank accorded to Bolivia, Mongolia, Romania, and Zambia—less free than all of Western Europe and such nations as Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa, and South Korea. As the report notes, although American law recognizes core labor rights, the U.S. political environment is “distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest.” So not Hell, but not Heaven either. Read More »


Free Labor In A Hostile World

Posted by on September 3, 2010

Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House. The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, the Albert Shanker Institute-supported report he cites below, is available here. A “Map of Workers’ Rights,” depicting its findings is here. 

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement that played so crucial a role in the collapse of Communist rule in Poland and ultimately everywhere else where it held sway. Solidarity emerged from a series of spontaneous strikes called by workers at the shipbuilding yards of Poland’s Baltic coast cities. It quickly spread throughout the country, pulling in workers from steel works, textile mills, and coal mines. Soon, the working class was joined by the intellectual opposition, a loose movement of academics and former student activists that had been gathering momentum as the corruption of the Communist system became increasingly apparent. 

Solidarity thus quickly evolved into a broad movement for democracy, with a free-wheeling press, a diplomatic apparatus, and close ties to Poland’s influential Catholic Church. It was, however, the support of Poland’s huge working class that ensured Solidarity’s staying power. Where Communist regimes had faced down opposition stirrings among students and intellectuals in the past, it had never been confronted by an adversary as large, disciplined, and well-organized as Solidarity came to be.  

It’s worth mentioning during this U.S. Labor Day period that U.S. unions, led by individuals such as AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and AFT President Al Shanker (from whom this blog is named), among many others, were Solidarity’s staunchest supporters in the U.S. Read More »


Do Americans Think Unions Help Everyone?

Posted by on August 4, 2010

The question in the headline is fundamental when trying to understand attitudes towards organized labor, as well as the relatively low union presence in the U.S. The “if I can’t have it, nobody can” attitude that anti-labor advocates try to promote among non-members packs far less punch if people understand that many of the conditions they take for granted – trivial things like sick days, minimum wages, and yes, weekends – are in no small part thanks to past and current efforts of the U.S. labor movement. Awareness of these efforts, and of the positive union effect on everyone’s wages and benefits, is also, no doubt, partially dependent on one’s experience with unions (e.g., coming from a “union family”).

So, it might be instructive to take a quick look at attitudes towards labor’s effects in the U.S. compared with those in other nations, and whether this appears to be related to the degree of unionization. Basically – do Americans think unions help all workers, and how do our attitudes stack up against other nations? Read More »


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