United States

A USA and International Perspective on 2012 PISA Results


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, 3 December 2013, Washington D.C., USA, Launch of the 2012 Results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

(As prepared for delivery)


Secretary Duncan, Governor Wise, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to share the 2012 results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA provides the most comprehensive international comparison of the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world in mathematics, science and reading. We take stock in three year periods and run the numbers and publish them a year later. Thus, these results correspond to the 2010-2012 period and they are the 5th set we prepare and publish since 2000.

This report comes at a crucial time. The on-going economic crisis has only increased the urgency of developing peoples’ skills – both through the education system and in the workplace. At a time when public budgets are tight and there is little room for further monetary and fiscal stimulus, reforms in education and skills development are key to future growth and employment.

This year we have focused our assessment on mathematics. It is well established that math proficiency is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults. It influences their ability to participate in post-secondary education and their expected future earnings. OECD countries already invest over USD 230 billion each year in math education in schools, and many reap impressive returns. This year’s PISA results can therefore help countries leverage and build on this trend, in a global context in which skills development is urgently needed.

Let me share our findings with you from a US perspective.


Unfortunately our results show that the U.S. is falling behind

Three years ago I shared with you a special report benchmarking the US against some of the best performing and rapidly improving school systems in the world. Our most recent results show that many of these countries have now pulled further ahead: Brazil progressed from low levels of performance, Germany and Poland moved from adequate to good, and Shanghai and Singapore from good to great. In fact, while 40 out of 65 countries improved their performance in PISA in at least one subject since 2003, US performance remained flat over the period.

In math this trend is particularly stark. One in four American 15-year-olds do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 in math proficiency, which requires no more than using basic algorithms to solve problems with whole numbers. In Canada, Korea, Shanghai and Singapore, it is one in 10 students or less. Additionally, math scores in top-performer Shanghai are now 2.5 years ahead of those in Massachusetts – itself a leader within the US.

In addition, our analysis shows that US students often struggle with tasks that are cognitively demanding and which require complex mathematical thinking. These are the kinds of skills valued most by the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM), a most valued and valuable tool already adopted by most states.

At the other end of the performance scale, the United States also has a below-average share of top performers in mathematics. Only 2% of American students reach the highest level of math performance, showing they can conceptualise, generalise, use and apply math creatively. That compares with an OECD average of 3% and over 30% of the students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei and Korea. This is not only a great loss to the American economy; it is also about peoples’ future.


Poor educational performance limits access to employment and widens social inequality

The OECD recently launched a Survey of Adult Skills, a sort of “PISA for Adults.” This report finds that foundation skills in mathematics have a major impact on individuals’ life chances. The survey shows that poor mathematics skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs. We also find that people with strong math skills are more likely to volunteer, see themselves as actors rather than as objects of political processes, and are even more likely to trust others. In short, education and skills really matter.

One of the greatest concerns is that the poor performance of disadvantaged students in the US will create a cycle of inequality in which the rich stay rich and the poor remain behind. And in the US, the disparity between the top and the bottom is already alarmingly high. The income gap between rich and poor stands at approximately 16 to 1. This compares to the OECD average income gap of approximately 9 to 1.

More progress is needed to ensure that the American dream of social mobility does not become a distant memory or a mirage. The good news is that in the United States there is no significant difference between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in terms of student-teacher ratios or the proportion of mathematics teachers qualified to university level. This is not the case in about half of OECD countries. Nevertheless, it is clear that socio-economic background still has a significant impact on student performance. Two American students from different socio-economic backgrounds have a greater disparity in their learning outcomes than those in countries like Hong Kong, Finland, Japan or Norway.

The US is by no means alone in facing such challenges. Countries like France, Portugal and Spain also have considerable work to do to sever the links between disadvantaged parental backgrounds and students’ poor academic performance.


What can the US do?

The US has already improved its educational performance through President Obama’s ambitious “Race to the Top” programme. This initiative encourages US states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments to help prepare students for success in college and the workplace, to retain and reward teachers, to build useful student data systems, and to help low-performing schools. This is an impressive effort, but there is more that the US can learn from the PISA results published today.

In math, the strict implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) would undoubtedly improve PISA results. This is a key finding from the US Country Note on PISA, published today alongside the full international report.

It is also possible for the US to reach for excellence and improve equity at the same time. Indeed, of the 13 countries that significantly improved their math performance in PISA, three also show improvements in making their systems more equitable, and another nine improved their performance while maintaining high levels of equity. One concrete course of action is to find ways to allocate the most talented teachers and school leaders to the most challenging schools and classrooms. PISA also finds that all the highest-performing countries allocate educational resources more equitably among advantaged and disadvantaged schools than the US does.

In many respects, teachers are the key to success. Top school systems focus on teacher selection and retention, and provide strong pathways for career growth. They also create an environment for teachers to be innovative and share good practices. Instead of requiring standardisation and compliance, top performing systems enable teachers to be inventive; instead of looking upwards in the bureaucracy, they look outwards to create networks of innovation across teachers and schools.


Finally, the PISA 2012 assessment dispels the widespread notion that educational achievement is mainly a product of innate ability rather than good education and hard work. In Japan, for example, students not only believe they are in control of their ability to succeed, but they are prepared to do what it takes to do so. This suggests that parents and teachers can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education. Put simply, it is about making education a priority, not only within governments, but also at home.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

As Secretary Duncan so aptly said, “even in times of fiscal austerity, education is more than just an expense.” Indeed, it is an investment that pays long-term dividends for the economy, for individual well-being, for civic participation and public health, and for the overall prosperity of our societies. I know that the US Department of Education, the OECD, the other participants in the PISA survey share the same passion for improving our education systems.

Equipping citizens with the skills necessary to achieve their full potential, participate successfully in an increasingly interconnected global economy, and ultimately convert better jobs into better lives is our ultimate goal. The OECD stands ready to help the US learn from PISA and to support you in your efforts to develop better education policies for better lives.

Thank you.