Graph of the Day: My contribution to PISA Palooza

With today’s release of PISA data it is once again time for wild punditry, mass condemnation of U.S. public schools and a renewed sense of urgency to ram through ill-conceived, destructive policies that will make our school system even more different from those breaking the curve on PISA.

With that out of the way, here’s my little graphic contribution to what has become affectionately known to edu-pundit class as PISA-Palooza.  Yep… it’s the ol’ poverty as an excuse graph – well, really it’s just the ol’ poverty in the aggregate just so happens to be pretty strongly associated with test scores in the aggregate – graph… but that’s nowhere near as catchy.


PISA Data:

(table M4)

OECD Relative Poverty: Source: Provisional data from OECD Income distribution and poverty database (

Yep – that’s right… relative poverty – or the share of children in families below 50% of median income – is reasonably strongly associated with Math Literacy PISA scores. And this isn’t even a particularly good measure of actual economic deprivation. Rather, it’s the measure commonly used by OECD and readily available. Nonetheless, at the national aggregate, it serves as a pretty strong correlate of national average performance on PISA.

What our little graph tells us – albeit not really that meaningful – is that if we account (albeit poorly) for child poverty, the U.S. is actually beating the odds. Way to go? (but for that really high poverty rate).

Bottom line – economic conditions matter and simple rankings of countries by their PISA scores aren’t particularly insightful (and the above graph only marginally more insightful). Further, comparisons of cities in China to entire nations is a particularly silly approach.

Additional Readings:

Coley, R., Baker, B.D. (2013) Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward. ETS Center for
Research on Human Capital and Education. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service

Baker, B.D., Welner, K.G. (2011) Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High‐Quality Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from‐research


Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

16 thoughts on “Graph of the Day: My contribution to PISA Palooza

  1. Looking at the average scores of U.S. schools with less than 10% free or reduced lunch then:

    U.S. schools are second behind Shanghai in Reading and Science and sixth behind some Chinese Cities, Singapore and Korea.

    As you have pointed out, what pulls down the U.S. scores is when all the students of poverty are included!

  2. Would be interested in your thoughts on the “new performance-based assessment to measure the classroom readiness of teachers” that “promises to transform the preparation and certification of new teachers”. This was highlighted at Ed Week yesterday.

  3. Of course to have that much child poverty in the wealthiest country in the world is the troubling part.

  4. edtpa is an interesting tool, and it may give us some more insight, but it will not be transformative… it is partly a response to attacks on traditional teacher prep programs from “reformers”

  5. So, I take it you are saying “it must be the schools” sarcastically….that Asian students going to the same PA schools score better on the tests than their nonAsian PA counterparts. It would be interesting to see Asian scores broken down by SES, to see if poverty levels affect test scores within this subpopulation.

  6. Looking at data this way, it’s helpful to keep in mind that some of the top performers, where there is currently little poverty, weren’t always in the situation that they are in now. Take for ex. Finland and South Korea. 3-4 decades ago childhood poverty rates there were at a similar level as in the US today. In both countries it was recognized that long-term educational policy planning with a focus on equality would be an effective means to alleviate poverty. What we are seeing in the current data is that that worked. Poverty levels should not be seen as an excuse for poor educational performance, as is all too often the case (I’m talking about the “fix poverty first, then education” folks). Poverty is a call to action on the education front. With deliberate, long-term planning, education can be a tool to fight poverty and countries like Finland and South Korea are demonstrative of that. (See for ex.

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