The fall of a former Nordic education star in the latest PISA tests is focusing interest on the tougher Asian model instead
The Economist, Dec 7th 2013
WHEN the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests to focus on maths results were published a decade ago, Finland’s blue-cross flag fluttered near the top of the rankings. Its pupils excelled at numeracy, and topped the table in science and reading. Education reformers found the prospect of non-selective, high-achieving and low-stress education bewitching.
Every three years since then, 15-year-olds have sat PISA tests in maths, reading and science. In 2012 fully 500,000 heads were bent over desks for the exam in 65 countries or cities. The results, published on December 3rd, doled out a large helping of humble pie to Europe’s former champion. Finland has fallen by 22 points on its 2009 result, with smaller falls (12 points and 9) in reading and science. “The golden days are over,” lamented the Finnbay news website.
None of this should have come as a surprise. Finland’s maths performance has been tailing off since 2006. But it is worsening faster than in other countries with falling scores such as Canada and Denmark. The Asian high-fliers (Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore) have consolidated their position at the top. Much soul-searching is under way in Helsinki.
Leena Krokfors, an academic there, blames declining motivation and a failure of maths teachers and the curriculum to inspire enthusiasm. Others are beginning to wonder whether the egalitarian nature of Finnish education might be an underlying problem. Juha Yla-Jaaski, who runs a technology project to stretch the academically able, worries that a focus on raising the achievement of the majority of pupils shortchanges the cleverest. The country is “kidding itself”, Mr Yla-Jaaski says, if it thinks they can catch up at university.
As Finns argue about how to retain their pre-eminence, many other countries in the West still envy it—as well as the progress of rapid improvers such as Estonia and Poland. France and Germany, in contrast, have flatlined. America’s dire showing led Arne Duncan, the education secretary, to decry “a picture of educational stagnation”, with Americans being “out-educated” by the Chinese. Some hope for a motivating shock like that delivered in 1957 by the Soviet Sputnik launch.
Get me into orbit
More important than individual country scores are the underlying trends. Asian systems are clearly no longer just hothouses for swots. Their best performers have briskly extended opportunity to children of poorer families, narrowing the achievement gap. Chinese officials say other big urban centres will emulate Shanghai’s stellar results by 2029.
Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA tests on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based think-tank for rich countries, notes that well over half of Shanghai’s pupils had a “deep conceptual knowledge” of maths, as opposed to around 13% in middling countries like Britain. That pertained even for those from disadvantaged backgrounds: “a remarkable performance”, concludes Mr Schleicher.
But the glory prompts questions. One concerns the psychological price paid. Asian children have a brutal load of after-school classes and the system is harsh on failure. Others question the methodology—some think that making education systems PISA-friendly has become a skill in itself. Scores do not show, for instance, how well pupils can apply what they have learned in later life.
Politicians claim that PISA justifies their particular selection of policies. Britain’s Conservative schools minister, Michael Gove, says the results vindicate his drive to change how schools are run, but his opponents argue that his beloved free schools, modelled on Sweden’s state-funded but independent Friskola, have not raised overall performance (Sweden fell well below the OECD average in overall rankings.)
The structure of education systems seems to count for less than overall culture. England, Northern Ireland and Scotland have markedly different varieties of school—England has moved gradually over the past decade to greater managerial autonomy from local bureaucracies, Scotland retains a centralised system and Northern Ireland kept selective schools. Their results are very similar and none excel. Overall, Asians and eastern Europeans are improving much faster than America and western Europe, regardless of how schools are organised.
New education stars can emerge and old ones fade fast. But the broader lesson may be simple, if brutal. Successful countries focus fiercely on the quality of teaching and eschew zigzag changes of direction or philosophy. Teachers and families share a determination to help the young succeed. Vietnam is now in eighth place for maths, besting many rich countries which spend far more. Pushy parenting helps too. Half of all Vietnamese parents stay in regular contact with teachers to monitor their children’s progress.
Our "Daily chart" displays the results by overall ranking here.
Diligent Asia, indolent West
How different countries’ students measure up
TEST scores are not everything. But they do signal something. By this measure (taken by testing 15-year-olds on basic academic skills) industrious Asians have maintained their lead over Americans and Europeans, according to the latest PISA survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment run by the OECD. Strikingly, the city of Shanghai, China, and Singapore are among the top (though test scores do not exist for earlier years, so they are not compared with, for example, 2006). America yet again lags on performance, though it has made some advances on more equitable access to education. The usefulness of PISA rankings is not so much about placement but about changes and what that tells us about the successes or otherwise of education reforms. Some countries have made gains like Slovenia and Spain. Some surprising tumblers include Canada, Sweden and Finland (largely due to poorer maths outcomes). Every three years around half a million pupils are tested per country; the latest study saw about 60 participate. Critics will point out the rankings have imperfections. But it gives us a clue to how successful our classrooms are—and that is hard to ignore.
Leaning on the Pisa tower of successJun 29, 2014
Education adviser to OECD puts up robust defence of global benchmarking tests
By Sandra Davie Senior Education Correspondent In Paris
Andreas Schleicher does not mince his words when asked about those who want to know why Shanghai or Singapore teenagers perform so well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), an influential global benchmarking test he oversees.
"When an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them. When a Chinese does, we say it must have been due to doping or the result of inhumane training," the education adviser to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tells The Sunday Times in an interview.
"I have been asked many times about the sampling done in Asian countries, including Singapore. Pisa provides all the technical data in detail. Pisa results are based on robust and internationally comparable data. They have been carefully designed and validated."
Students from across the spectrum are tested, he stresses, not just those who are smarter or from better schools. So in Singapore, the teenagers tested came from all streams and more than 160 schools, including Islamic religious schools or madrasahs.
To those who suspect the Pisa results, he says: "So we have to ask ourselves are these countries cheating? Or are we cheating ourselves?"
He has overseen the triennial test for 15-year-olds since it was launched in 2000. East Asian students, including those from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, have held pole positions and even moved up, triggering a wave of anxiety among parents, teachers and politicians in Western nations.
In the last test, held in 2012, Shanghai students were ranked first in mathematics, science and reading while their peers in Singapore came in second in mathematics and third in science and reading. In another test on problem-solving taken by students from 44 economies, Singapore came in first, followed by South Korea, Japan, Macau, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Except for Finland, Western nations have turned in middling performances at best. In Pisa 2012, American students ranked 36th, performing below the OECD average for mathematics, and average for reading and science.
Over the years, the tests, dubbed by some as "the World Cup for education", have become increasingly influential with many nations using the outcomes to drive changes in their school systems. But Pisa has also come under increasing scrutiny and even attacks from academics and educators.
Besides querying the statistical validity of the tests, there have been accusations of cheating by the Chinese. The latest was an open letter to Mr Schleicher signed by 120 academics and teachers from a dozen countries. They said the tests were imperfect and narrowly focused on economic goals, and asked for Pisa 2015 to be scrapped. "Pisa, with its three-year assessment cycle, has caused a shift of attention to short-term fixes designed to help a country quickly climb the rankings," it said.
Mr Schleicher argues that on the contrary, the international comparisons have opened up a perspective to a wider range of policy options. In education, he laments, people cling to stereotypes.
"When Singapore or other Asian countries do well, they say it is due to rote learning and many hours of tuition. Pisa shows no link between tuition and performance, and look at how well Singapore students did in problem-solving. Look at the sample questions we provided.
"It shows quite clearly that Singapore students are not rote learners. They are quick learners, highly inquisitive, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts, and highly skilled in generating new insights by observing, exploring and interacting with complex situations."
People will find all kinds of excuses and explanations for not succeeding, he notes.
"When Pisa results were first published in the US, people said, 'We have more immigrants than other countries'. And I told them, 'No, Pisa data shows that there are many other countries with a larger immigrant population and they do better'. The idea behind Pisa is to take away all the excuses."
Holding the test every three years allows countries to learn from on another - not necessarily from the top performers, but those which have improved.
"People say you can only improve an education system over 25 years - but look at Poland, look at Germany, which have improved in a very short time," Mr Schleicher says. "These countries didn't change their culture or the make-up of their population. They changed their education policies and strategies."
He relates how people in Germany, his home country, believed they had a high-performing education system until they were stunned by their mediocre performance in Pisa 2000.
"They called it 'Pisa Shock' and, for the very first time, the public debate in Germany was dominated for months by education. Not tax, not other kinds of issues, but education."
Then policymakers made changes. The government raised its investment in education. Much was done to increase the life chances of students with an immigrant background and those suffering social disadvantage. New legislation was introduced to expand access to pre-school education for children under three and give all children the right to a place in kindergarten.
The changes produced results. By Pisa 2009, Germany had gone from below average to above average in the rankings.
"Pisa shows what is possible in education," Mr Schleicher says.
Highlighting what five cycles of Pisa have shown, he says: "It's not about money. Spending per student only explains about less than 20 per cent of the performance variation among countries, and two countries with similar spending achieve very different results."
Neither is it about reducing class size. "The top-performing East Asian nations have larger classes."
What the data does show is that the quality of teachers and the learning environment matter. Also, in top-performing countries, there is importance placed on education.
"You hear of Asian parents mortgaging their homes and using their retirement savings to send their children to university. There's a strong belief that education will secure you a good future," he says.
There is also a strong belief that all children are capable of success.
"Parents and teachers in countries expect every student to succeed and you can see that actually mirrored in student behaviour," he says, noting the difference in student responses to a Pisa survey probing them on what counts for success in mathematics,
"Students in North America would tell us that talent counts. If I'm not born a genius in maths, I'd better study something else. But the majority of students in Asian countries such as Singapore would say that it depends on how much time they spend, and how much effort they put in.
"So for them their achievement depends on how much time and effort they put in, rather than inherited intelligence, which suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education."
Top-performing countries also embrace diversity among students with differentiated instructional practices, and their teachers have high expectations for every student. Anyone can create an education system where a few at the top succeed but, he adds: "The real challenge is to push through the entire cohort, which Singapore does very well."
High-performing countries also pay great attention to how they select and train their teachers. And when deciding where to invest, they prioritise quality of teachers over the size of classes.
"They also provide multiple pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and have moved on from bureaucratic control to treating their teachers as professionals. They encourage and support their teachers to develop themselves further and to make innovations in teaching," Mr Schleicher adds.
He is well aware of the many complaints in Singapore over schools' reliance on tests and the heated debate over the Primary School Leaving Examination.
But he points out that Pisa has shown that most systems which do well have an exam culture, and says this is why tests and exams work: "It signals to parents and students that doing well in their academic studies is important."
But there is a downside to over- reliance on examinations: "Exams make students focus on things that can be easily measured and it encourages standardisation versus ingenuity, compliance verses thinking out of the box."
Summing up the good that Pisa can do, he says: "The findings allow policymakers around the world to gauge the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries, set policy targets against measurable goals achieved by other education systems, and learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere."
But what about the charge that such international comparisons in education standards are unfair? Is it meaningful to compare countries as different as Finland, China and Vietnam?
Mr Schleicher replies by pointing out that young people from all those countries are competing with one another in a globalised economy and the skills they learn are going to be hugely important to their life chances.
He adds that there is no running away from competition and comparisons. "This is true for education as much as economics. Your country's competitiveness and your individual job prospects are heavily influenced by what happens in other countries, how skilled, how talented their workers are.
"In a global economy, improvement by national standards is not a measure of success. You compete globally."