When PISA results were first presented 12 years ago, the participating countries were excited to see how their school systems perform compared to one another. Now the launch of the fifth PISA results is accompanied by more criticism than before due to the issues with cross-country comparisons and the dominant role that PISA plays in determining priorities for national education policies. Whatever its limitations are, the data from more than half a million 15-year-olds around the world is now here, and we should try to make the best out of them.
An appropriate use of PISA data is not to create global league tables that praise or shame countries for their performances in standardized mathematics, reading literacy and science tests. But this is still the most common way to report PISA results. In Finland, media bluntly concluded that Finnish school system has collapsed pointing to country’s drop from 6th best in the world in mathematics in 2009 to 12th three years later. Swedish newsagents went even further stating that Sweden’s all-time-low PISA scores are a “national disaster” that puts the future of the nation at risk. It was a similar story of concern in Canada. In the US, authorities were concerned about widening learning gap between American and Asian youth and how it is harmful to America’s economic competitiveness. Many others seem to draw their conclusions of PISA by a glance at the league tables.
Another handicap of using PISA to inform national policies is to admire the highest scoring school systems and thereby fail to see the common patterns from the data. PISA consumers should note that not every high-scoring school system is successful. A school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.
My personal takeaway from the PISA 2012 study is how it proves that fashionable Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is built on wrong premises. GERM, that emerged from England’s Education Reform Act 1988 and was further accelerated by the No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top reforms in the US, assumes that market mechanisms are the best vehicles for whole system improvements. GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world. The infection can be diagnosed by checking the state of the following five symptoms.
First is increased competition between schools that is boosted by school choice and related league tables offering parents information that helps them make the right “consumer” decisions. Second is standardization of teaching and learning that sets detailed prescriptions how to teach and what students must achieve so that schools’ performance can be compared to one another. Third is systematic collection of information on schools’ performance by employing standardized tests. These data are then used to hold teachers accountable for students’ achievement. Fourth is devaluing teacher professionalism and making teaching accessible to anyone through fast-track teacher preparation. Fifth is privatizing public schools by turning them to privately governed schools through charter schools, free schools and virtual schools.
In 2012 when the OECD collected the latest PISA data from 65 education systems, GERM had already spread to become a global pandemic. The most notable victims of GERM are schools and communities in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile. The wealth of fresh data available now begs an interesting question: do PISA findings reinforce the premises of GERM being right? Well, let’s take a look at three key findings of PISA 2012 to see how GERM contradicts with that evidence.
Countries that give schools autonomy over curricula and student assessments often perform better. This finding is orthogonal to the basic premise of GERM that assumes that externally set teaching standards and aligned standardized testing are preconditions for success. PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.
High average learning outcomes and system-wide equity are often interrelated. Equity in education means that students’ socio-economic status has little impact on how well they learn in school. Equity is high in the agenda in all successful school systems. Focus on equity means to give high priority to universal early childhood programs, comprehensive health and special education services in schools, and balanced curriculum that has equal weight in arts, music, and sports, and academic studies. Fairness in resource allocation is important for equity, too. PISA 2012 shows that fair resourcing is related to the success of the entire school system: High student performance tends to be linked to more equitably resource allocation between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.
School choice does not improve the performance of education system. School choice and competition between schools are related to greater levels of segregation in the education system. That, in turn, may have adverse consequences for equity in learning opportunities and outcomes. Indeed, successful education systems do better than those that have expanded school choice. All successful school systems have a strong commitment to maintain their public schools and local school control. PISA 2012 data show that the prevalence of charter and free schools with related competition for students have no discernible relationship with student learning.
PISA 2012 also reaffirms the appeal by millions of teachers worldwide: pay us better. While paying teachers well is only part of the story, higher salaries can help countries to attract more young people to choose teaching as their lifelong career. PISA results show that more successful countries pay more to their teachers and give them higher status in society.
Countries that want to be higher on the PISA tables should understand what it truly takes to get there.