TIME's report that the US "lags behind" countries like Finland and South Korea" on the PISA reading test ("In school, China on the rise," Dec 20), and TIME's positive evaluation of the film Waiting for Superman (The Best Movies of 2010, Dec. 20), leads to the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with American education and that "we have to fix things fast." A closer look at the data shows that what is wrong is our unacceptably high rate of child poverty.
Poverty had a huge impact on American PISA reading test scores. American students in schools with less than 10% of students on free and reduced lunch averaged 551, higher than the overall average of any of the 34 member countries of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Those in schools with 10 to 25% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch averaged 527. Among the OECD countries, only Korea and Finland did better.
In contrast, American students in schools with 75% of more of children in poverty averaged 446, second to last among the 34 OECD countries.
Our overall scores are less impressive because we have one of the highest rates of child poverty among all the countries tested. According to a 2005 UNICEF report, the US has a child poverty rate of over 21.9%; in contrast, the rate in high-scoring Finland is only 2.8%.
Among other things, high poverty means less access to books at school, at home and in the community. Less access to books means less reading, and less reading means lower performance on tests such as the PISA.
What all this means is that our first priority should be to protect children against the effects of poverty, including making sure all children have access to reading material. And the obvious way to do this is to support school and public libraries and school librarians.
The PISA report confirms this: Reading fiction for enjoyment and on-line reading were associated with higher PISA reading scores across all countries tested.