Teach For America’s “One Day” and the Hungry Little CaterPISA


January 27, 2014 by juicefong

Standard discloser: Yes, I work for Teach For America, but I wrote this blog independently of my responsibilities. No one tells me what to write and I edit for myself, which is probably dumb. On The Twitter: @jgfong

It’s right there in the mission statement: One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. The Teach For America community often invokes the refrain “One Day.” What does it really mean? While a lot of us are steeped in our emotional and spiritual yearning for this “One Day,” I think very few of us actually have a way of knowing when we’ll have arrived.

Last week I stumbled upon a graphic that clarified things for me. It’s not new data, but it was illustrated in a way that gave me the granules for what “One Day” oughta look like.

The Huffington Post published new PISA data (the test administered to member countries and partners of the OECD), breaking performance down by income decile. Basically, you can see how various income groups perform across all these different countries:


Visualized in this way, there are two things your eyes should focus on. First, how well each country performs on this exam. You can see Japan, Korea and the Chinese locales excelling while places like Peru, Uruguay and Tunisia bring up the rear.

You also see the distribution of the income deciles within each country. Taiwan has generally high absolute performance, but a very wide distribution through its income deciles. By contrast Kazakhstan has relatively low absolute performance, but their deciles are bunched more closely together.

When thinking about data presented in this way, you start to get a handle on what we’d like this to look like in order to achieve “One Day.” We’re looking for two things: 1) We’re looking for all of our income deciles to meet or exceed an absolute bar of achievement. I have no idea how to translate PISA scores, but whatever can be defined as “college or career ready,” I’ll take that. 2) (If you maintain fidelity to the mission statement, this one will require more qualification, but let’s just roll with it.) We’re looking for all of our ten little dots to be lined up closely together, where the lowest decile is not demonstrably far from the highest decile. Kinda like Macao-China, except all shifted to the right a bit more. Excuse the poor Photoshop job, but something like this, you know—really sticking it to Australia and Denmark!


Doesn’t that look like “One Day”? Let’s hypothetically call 550 the standard for “college and career ready.” Get everyone over that line, ensuring that the deciles are all bunched relatively close together. Good?

Not so fast—this should raise some very serious questions.

1) We’re only looking at income groups, here. What about race, gender and ability? Those categories are important, too. We could create an NSA server full of graphs (as TFA types are prone to do), but something this simple is also helpful on a macro level. The TFA community believes that education can be the great equalizer, that education creates opportunity which is often about upward mobility. So, I think it’s best to talk about income groups. After all, there are many rich blacks and Latinos getting a great education, and many poor whites and Asians who are not.

2) So what of those upper income deciles? Are we okay with them being out in front? Call me controversial but I think it’s a little naïve to imagine a world in which all of those dots land in the same exact spot. You can get them closer together, but I think you will always have some outliers on the high end and the low end—the result of the resource richness of wealth and the resource constraints of poverty. We just don’t want that relative advantage and relative disadvantage to be very meaningful when we look at this kind of data.

The goal is not to restrain the wealthy—we should have no interest in holding back the potential of any student, privileged or not. (This is why “closing the achievement gap” is problematic.) The goal is to push everyone up. We’ve just got more work to do with low-income students.

Let’s go back to the mission statement for a second: One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. You could argue that so long as every decile crossed the minimum threshold for excellence, that you’ve achieved the mission as stated, even if the highest deciles are far ahead of the lowest. If that were the case though, I think people would argue to raise that minimum threshold—the standard of excellence would have to be reset if the highest performers were way up there. You cannot escape the relativity of “excellence.” And so, I think the bunching principle stands. We do not want to see a wide disparity, even if all these deciles move up dramatically.

3) So what you’ve implied above is that poverty is destiny? Not at all. Poverty does mean something—it presents burdens, it constrains resources. But look at that first graphic. The poorest decile in Vietnam outperforms 90% of Uruguay. Even the poorest kids in Korea outperform the average of all of the OECD. Good schools can make a difference, even in the face of poverty. I’m not buying your argument, Diane Ravitch.

4) Is this all about test scores? No. But tests can be an efficient way of measuring academic aptitude across large masses of students. Until you have a better way, I’m good with tests like the PISA that take such samplings. (I’ve written otherwise about standardized testing here.)

5) Is this all about college? Not saying that either. Being prepared for the rigors of college or career seems like a good aspiration, though. There are many paths to fulfill one’s dreams. Dan Porterfield, President of Franklin and Marshall College, once came to speak to Teach For America’s staff. This quote stuck with me: “We should be thinking of knowledge as a pathway to freedom and empowerment.” I also like to think of education being important for enlightenment’s sake.

So anyway, I’m thankful for the Huffington Post arranging the data in this way. I’ll be keeping an eye on this PISA data that comes out every three years. Eventually, I’d like to see America’s dots look like the hungry little caterpillar, all bunched together and inching its way to the right side of that graph. I think that’s what “One Day” is gonna look like—a colorful little larva.

5 thoughts on “Teach For America’s “One Day” and the Hungry Little CaterPISA

  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    I’d make three points:

    1) My first thought was, “This does look pretty bad.” My second thought was “Is this table just math?” If so, one has to try to factor in our specific underperformance specific to *math*. I would argue that interpreting math scores as indicators of generic structural problems has been a gigantic red herring for reformers. We would be much better off with a sustained effort to improve math curriculum and instruction specifically than what we have been doing (including ramming through the Common Core). See also Liping Ma.

    2) If you broke out Massachusetts, it would look a lot better. Why aren’t we telling states to follow the path Mass. took in the 1990’s? That is, faithfully, not a rushed, under-funded, privatized version.

    3) How do countries that pursue choice and privatization look? Chile? Sweden? Do you think Teach First will fix Norway?

  2. Jessica says:

    One could argue, however, that these plots show relative, not absolute poverty, as compared to absolute achievement. In other words, maybe the poorest kids in one country are still significantly more resource-rich than the poorest kids in another country, to the point where those resources affect educational attainment. I would like to see some sort of cross-country comparison of poverty (e.g., income normed to GDP per capita, or some other better metric) overlaid on this plot.

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