What the PISA Scores Are Telling Us

There is much talk in Finland these days about the country’s showing in the recent international comparison of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores — not the self-congratulation one might expect from a country that topped yet again the list of high performing countries, but rather a sober look at the report’s nuances. A slight decline in Finland’s reading scores have educators looking for solutions and Minister of Education Henna Virkkunen urging reinforcement of reading skills beginning with “very early education.” It’s a good bet the Finns will take action to remedy what they see as a problem and they will not wait until kids are in formal schooling to apply it.

We should be so lucky. Many responses coming from the chorus of experts in this country to the poor showing of our 15-year-olds look past early childhood education, failing to recognize that preschool education is a strong predictor of difference across countries in PISA scores. According to the PISA report, students who attended preschool scored higher more than a decade after they moved on to the higher grades.

Michael Davidson at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which conducts PISA points out that 20 percent of the U.S. performance was attributed to social background. This is much higher than in other countries in the evaluation. This too argues for making substantial new investments in high-quality pre-K. While research shows all kids benefit from pre-K, it is the disadvantaged kids who benefit most. Yet despite the evidence, policymakers at all levels continue to seek reforms that have little positive effect. They apparently haven’t gotten the message, backed by abundant research, that high-quality preschool produces positive effects, not to mention high returns on the public’s investment in it.

This message has obviously resonated in Shanghai, China, which now sits at the very top of the list of high performers. Like Finland, this immense city with a population equal to many large U.S. states also provides universal pre-K and requires highly trained teachers. We don’t have to model what we do after the Chinese or the Finns. We can look to selected communities in the United States that have already adopted serious reforms including raising the quality of early care and education. But we do have to begin taking high-quality preschool education as seriously and with the same sense of urgency as the most educationally successful nations. After all, their children are the ones our kids will be competing against.

Ellen Frede & Steve Barnett

Co-directors, NIEER