Equity in American Education: Where We Stand

In today’s complicated world, it can be tough to understand the big picture. Case in point: The news from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about its latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published on December 6, 2016. The PISA assessment is a triennial international survey which evaluates education systems by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year old students worldwide.

The New York Times and others reported that “One in every three disadvantaged American teenagers beat the odds in science, achieving results in the top quarter of students from similar backgrounds worldwide.” Observers hailed this as a “major accomplishment.” As recently as 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in U.S. students’ science scores; that had dropped to 11 percent in this round. Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director for education and skills, said this was “one of the most encouraging findings from the 2015 PISA.”

Yes, we agree this is a reason for cheer. But we say let’s keep going. Disadvantaged students in the United States were 2.5 times more likely to be low performers than advantaged students. The results mean that a student in wealthy suburban school district is still likely to score 11 percent higher on the assessment than the same aged student in an inner-city school. The only difference is the first student just happened to be born to wealthier parents.

America isn’t built on such thinking. Perhaps we will never achieve full equity (which is different than equality, by the way). However, we are committed to supporting research that focuses on closing gaps in equity and achievement. Our goal is to produce actionable evidence to guide thought leadership, and inform changes in policy and practice, that will lead to improved learning and achievement.

In fact, participants in an OECD panel about the test results emphasized that “providing teachers with quality training and professional learning was key to increasing equity in education and improving student outcomes overall.” Andreas Schleicher said that, while there is still much work to be done, “Comparing across countries, the PISA demonstrates that poverty need not be destiny.”

The year ahead will be an exciting one and we are looking forward to the journey.