Elementary science student using plastic atom model educational toy. (Steve Debenport/ iStock)

Nancy Truitt Pierce is a member of the Monroe School Board in Washington state who was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to his STEM Alliance Advisory Board. In her day job, she is a consultant who convenes monthly peer group meetings of top executives in Seattle and hears what they are looking for when recruiting new employees. What do they want?

Here’s what she wrote in an email:

What I hear from the key corporate leaders I meet monthly with is that they want candidates coming out of our public schools who are creative, innovative, collaborative problem solvers. Yes, the candidates must also have strong foundational skills of math, science and language arts but I suggest we are putting too much emphasis on the PISA math score as a key indicator of public school quality. I suggest there are other indicators that would serve us in much better ways.

PISA is the Program for International Student Assessment in which 15-year-old students in school systems around the world take tests in several subjects. American students have never scored near the top in this or any other international test, and the 2015 results were no different, prompting a great deal of consternation in the United States. (Pierce said she focused on the math score because that is what comes in for the most scrutiny.) Coming out on top on the 2015 PISA were kids in Singapore, followed by Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Macao (China), Canada, Vietnam, Hong Kong (China) and B-S-J-G (China).  But a recent Forbes article points out some of the problems with PISA:

[B]efore we accept the results at face value, we should delve more deeply into PISA’s problematic methodology, which are twofold. First, as you may have gleaned from the top ten results, instead of choosing one consistent geographical entity, PISA selects a sample that “represents the full population of 15-year-old students in each participating country or education system.” What this means in practice is the ability of some education administrators choosing their top-performing students from smaller samples in cities or city-states such as Chinese Taipei, Macao, Hong Kong and Singapore. While most of the other results came from a sample of scores around nations, some countries such as Argentina and China were allowed to take their sample from their most educated cities or regions. …

If we dig deeper into the sampling, we come across another potential problem with the PISA testing: that the sampling done on mainland China (Beijing, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Shanghai) and other cities was not taken from a wide variety of schools.

So what indicators does Pierce think should be considered when attempting to evaluate how well America’s public schools perform? Here’s what she wrote, in which she identifies three key indicators that are being overlooked in the national education debate:

1. The latest international PISA … showed that the United States is below average of 65 countries but this is not even an apple-to-apple comparison:

• The key correlation for academic success is family income.
• The USA is one of the only countries that educates EVERYONE. Most countries only educate their most affluent class.
• We do well on the PISA math comparison [and other PISA subjects] if you control for free-and reduced-price lunch, making it a better apple-to-apple comparison.

2. We win where it matters. If you look at other indicators more related to innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, the USA does very well.

• The Global Creativity Index ranks the United States second of 139 countries in the latest results, 2015.
• The 2016 Global Innovation Index ranks the United States fourth out of 128 countries.
• The 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Index ranks the United States first of 121 countries.

I believe these are much more compelling indicators to track and align with a more important goal.

3. The educational model most effective for developing students who are collaborative, creative problem solvers is antithetical to the educational model most effective for developing students who are good at math tests.

• Hands on, project based learning is the most effective educational model in the first instance. Solitary and repetitive drilling on math facts is best in the second instance.
• By focusing on the PISA Math test as a key metric, we are driving educational policy the wrong direction — away from methods that develop creativity and toward methods that focus on math test scores.

My hope is to get policymakers to:

1) Clarify our overarching goal to include creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as key outcomes of our public school system.
2) Focus on the indicators above to demonstrate success.
3) Reduce the overreliance on math tests as the primary metric for success.

Here are the top 25 countries on the latest Global Creativity Index:

Here are the top 20 countries on the 2016 Global Innovation Index:


Here are the top 10 on the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Index: