Every time the results of the international PISA test are released, the United States gets another opportunity to whip itself for students’ lackluster showing. For those who are unfamiliar with it, PISA is the Program for International Student Assessment, a test administered to students in 79 countries around the world. It allows critics on both sides of the school reform debate to peer at the results of other nations, compare them to the U.S. outcomes and find examples that appear to confirm their own beliefs about why our 15-year-olds are not at the top of the heap in science, math and reading.

But if Finland, Singapore and South Korea are all doing better than we are, that suggests there may be a factor at play other than how we teach. And indeed there is something that all three of these nations, and every other country that outranks the United States on the PISA test, have in common: lower rates of child poverty.

And poverty is a major factor in how well students perform on the tests.

Though the United States is by most measures a wealthy country, it is one with many poor people. A 2017 Unicef report looked at the relative child poverty rates of 41 well-off nations. The United States ranked seventh from the bottom.

There’s no getting around it: This is a shameful situation in a developed, wealthy nation. When poverty equates to lower academic performance, we perpetuate that poverty from one generation to the next.

Until we are willing to face that problem and take bold measures against it, the nation’s rankings will always be limited.

— Los Angeles Times


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