The results are out.Shanghai, China sits at the summit of the education performance mountain, Finland has slipped back from its position of past glory as the number 1 nation. Britain has stayed the same and some nations such as Poland and Israel can give themselves a collective pat on the back for making good progress and closing the gap between the most able and least able children in their school systems.
The PISA report from the OECD has, for a long time, stood as the benchmark for international comparison of educational achievement. It is based on a number of tests that are given to a wide sample of 15 year olds within a given country. The most able are those who get questions right that are at the highest level of difficulty in the tests. The data is collected and then published as a variety of tables.
The list of achievement is the one that is usually looked at by the media around the world. Countries like to see if they have risen or fallen (or in the case of my country the U.K. trod water). The media carries on about the winners and losers. The United States in particular is the place where the media will jump in on the results in order to continue their long running campaign of public dismay at the failure of their education system.
But there are, to quote a famous phrase, “lies, damn lies and statistics”. The figures are based on a test and like all tests they reflect the ability to take tests. In that respect it is not that surprising to see so many of the Asian nations, China, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong showing up as the highest achieving nations. It is interesting that China, for example, which is achieving the greatest results, is concerned about their lack of innovation and creativity and have been looking at the examples of the U.S.A. and Western Europe as leaders in these areas.
If education were simply about the achievement of results in a test of Reading, Mathematics and Science, then PISA would indeed be significant. But education is much much more than the narrow confines of a specific test of these specific areas of the curriculum. I have no doubt that if there was a test for innovation and creativity then the Asian nations might well lag behind the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. Would their media have such a panic about their inability to top a table in design?
So am I saying that we should ignore the PISA results? No. I certainly feel that they have some important information to provide us. The results in regard to equity for example (i.e. those nations which have made progress in bridging the gap between their highest achievers and their lowest, or the rich and poor, which is very often the same thing) is important. The results in regards to gender (i.e. boys and reading and girls and mathematics) is valuable.
We do not live in a silo. Indeed we now live in a large global village. We can all learn from each other. The PISA data will help us to see good practice from many nations across the globe. I would be interested to see how Italy or Israel have made progress in bridging achievement gaps and how this has impacted on gender issues.
To look at the results yourself go to http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
I would also thoroughly recommend PISA’s own video about the results which I feel is balanced and explores other issues than the basic country standings: see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yhiGj-252k&hd=1