Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?


Today’s post, courtesy of educationtoday, is by Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the OECD PISA Programme and Deputy Director for Education and Skills as well as Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General.

Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping; or if that’s taking it too far, that it must have been the result of inhumane training.

There seem to be parallels to this in education. Only hours after results from the latest PISA assessment showed Shanghai’s school system leading the field, Time magazine concluded the Chinese must have been cheating. They didn’t bother to read the PISA technical report, which shows there was no cheating, whatsoever, involved. Nor did they speak with the experts who had drawn the samples or with the international auditors who had carefully reviewed and validated the sample for Shanghai and those of other countries.

Others were quick to suggest that resident internal migrants might not be covered by Shanghai’s PISA sample, because years ago those migrants wouldn’t have had access to Shanghai’s schools. But, like many things in China, that has long changed and, as described by PISA, resident migrants were covered by the PISA samples in exactly the way they are covered in other countries and education systems. Still, it seems to be easier to cling to old stereotypes than keep up with changes on the ground (or to read the PISA report).

True, like other emerging economies, Shanghai is still building its education system and not every 15-year-old makes it yet to high school. As a result of this and other factors, the PISA 2012 sample covers only 79% of the 15-year-olds in Shanghai. But that is far from unique. Even the United States, the country with the longest track record of universal high-school education, covered less than 90% of its 15-year-olds in PISA – and it didn’t include Puerto Rico in its PISA sample, a territory that is unlikely to have pulled up US average performance.

International comparisons are never easy and they are never perfect. But anyone who takes a serious look at the facts and figures will concede that the samples used for PISA result in robust and internationally comparable data. They have been carefully designed and validated to be fit for purpose in collaboration with the World’s leading experts, and the tests are administered under strict and internationally comparable conditions. Anyone who really wants to find out can review the underlying data.

Short of arguments about methodology, some people turn to dismissing Shanghai’s strong performance by saying that Shanghai’s students are only good on the kind of tasks that are easy to teach and easy to test, and that those things are losing in relevance because they are also the kind of things that are easy to digitise, automate and outsource. But while the latter is true, the former is not. Consider this: Only 2% of American 15-year-olds and 3% of European ones reach the highest level of math performance in PISA, demonstrating that they can conceptualise, generalise and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. In Shanghai it is over 30%. Educators in Shanghai have simply understood that the world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence and no longer value people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.

PISA didn’t just test what 15-year-olds know in maths, it also asked them what they believe makes them succeed. In many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves: More than three-quarters of the students in France, an average performer on the PISA test, said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky. The results are very different for Shanghai. Students there believe they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed. That tells us a lot about school education. And guess which of these two countries keeps improving and which is not? The fact that students in some countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education.

And even those who claim that the relative standing of countries in PISA mainly reflects social and cultural factors must concede that educational improvement is possible: In mathematics, countries like Brazil, Turkey, Mexico or Tunisia rose from the bottom; Italy, Portugal and the Russian Federation have advanced to the average of the industrialised world or close to it; Germany and Poland rose from average to good, and Shanghai and Singapore have moved from good to great. Indeed, of the 65 participating countries, 45 saw improvement in at least one subject area. These countries didn’t change their culture, or the composition of their population, nor did they fire their teachers. They changed their educational policies and practices. Learning from these countries should be our focus. We will be cheating ourselves and the children in our schools if we miss that chance.

International comparisons are never easy and they aren’t perfect. But PISA shows what is possible in education, it takes away excuses from those who are complacent, and it helps countries see themselves in the mirror of the educational results and educational opportunities delivered by the world’s educational leaders. The world has become indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals, institutions and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change. And the task for governments is to help citizens rise to this challenge. PISA can help to make that happen.

Useful links

PISA 2012

Can China feed itself?

OECD FAO Outlook 2013It could be the biggest Chinese takeover ever of a U.S. firm. But this deal doesn’t involve Silicon Valley, high-tech widgets or Hollywood stars. Instead, a Chinese firm is proposing to pay a whopping $4.7 billion for a U.S. business that produces … pork.

Shuanghui International’s offer for Smithfield Food has attracted some controversy. One U.S. senator has described it as “concerning”. Others see it more positively: According to the Financial Times, the “deal will help open the Chinese market for US meat producers”.

That’s a growing market. China’s emerging middle class is eating more, and especially more meat, and is increasingly concerned about food safety. But meeting their demands is set to become a bigger challenge as China confronts environmental and demographic issues and the impact of climate change. And that’s part of the reason why Chinese businesses are eyeing up overseas suppliers like Smithfield.

So far, China has been able to meet much of its growing demand itself: Between 1980 and 2011, agricultural output (not all of it food, of course) expanded 4.5 times, thanks in part to increased use of machinery, improved irrigation, and hybrid crops. In parallel, the number of people going hungry has fallen sharply: In 1990, around one in five Chinese was malnourished; today it’s under one in eight. Food security has also improved: In 1978, for example, rural households spent 68% of their income on food; today it’s only around 40%.

Indeed, one – unwanted – marker of China’s success in feeding itself is the rise in overweight and obese people: Between 1991 and 2006, the proportion of overweight people doubled to just under 27%, according to an OECD report.

But, as the latest OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook explains, maintaining the growth momentum in Chinese agriculture won’t be easy, for several reasons. The first is demographics: China’s countryside faces a double whammy of an ageing population and migration to the cities. In 1992, around 844 million people lived in the Chinese countryside; by 2022, the UN estimates that figure will fall to below 600 million. Not only will the rural population be smaller, it will also be older, meaning there will be fewer skilled workers available to manage increasingly complex farms.

Then there’s land and water, both in short supply. China has only around a quarter of the arable land per person that OECD countries have. Similarly, its water supply per person is only around a quarter the world average. And both these resources are under pressure: More than 40% of China’s arable land is classed as degraded as a result of erosion, salinisation and acidification. Soil contamination is also a concern.

And, of course, there’s climate change: China, like much of the rest of the world, appears to be seeing a rise in extreme weather events. One result is that the country’s variable water supply is becoming even more unpredictable. Droughts in the arid north are likely to become more common, while flooding will become an even more regular feature of life in the more tropical south.

Despite all these pressures, China will probably go on raising its food output. It’s likely to remain essentially self-sufficient for commodities like rice and to remain a net supplier of others – it’s the world’s top exporter of fish.

But in other areas, most notably dairy and meat products, China may rely more on imports. The bid for Smithfield Food could well be an early sign of that. There are other signs, too, of China’s changing food needs: Hong Kong, for example, has had to put a limit on purchases of baby formula to prevent mainland Chinese parents worried by a succession of food safety scares from clearing the city’s shelves. According to the BBC, retailers as far afield as London and Australia have followed suit.

Indeed, China is likely to have an increasing impact on global food markets. On the downside, that could mean a new source of volatility in the world’s food supply. But, as Craig Emerson, Australia’s trade minister pointed out at the OECD Forum, it could also open important new markets: “There’s no doubt that in Asia, and China in particular, as the middle-classes expand, they will want premium agricultural produce … they’re willing to pay a lot for safe, healthy, clean and green produce.”

Useful links

OECD work on agriculture

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站 (中文)

OECD on Weibo – 经合组织微博

Breathless in China

Click to see the report
Click to see the report

What do you look for in a holiday destination – sunshine and sand, fine food, ancient treasures? If none of these send you scuttling off to Tripadvisor, then how about this: fresh air. That’s what one Chinese province is promising in adverts running on national TV: “Take a deep breath, you’re in Fujian.”

The campaign seems to be working: So far this year, the coastal province has seen a 38% rise in visitors, according to NPR’s Rob Schmitz. “The air is so fresh here!” one tourist told him. “Whenever I go to work in Beijing, I have to wear a mask or else I’ll start coughing uncontrollably. It’s just been terrible lately.”

Indeed. Even by Beijing’s standards, air pollution this past winter has been awful, with the city repeatedly blanketed in throat-choking fog. On one weekend in January, the level of airborne fine particles classed as PM2.5, which are especially harmful to health, briefly rose to almost 40 times above the acceptable limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Beijing is not alone: Less than 1% of China’s 500 biggest cities meet WHO air-quality guidelines, according to the Asian Development Bank, and seven of them rank among the world’s ten most polluted cities. According to the in the world from urban air pollution.

None of this is particularly new – China’s problem with pollution has been apparent for years, but the depth of the murk that descended this past winter does seem to have sparked a real bout of soul-searching. China’s media, for example, has been reporting the problem with unusual frankness –“Beijing’s 225 shades of grey,” says a headline in the China Daily, over a set of photos of the smoggy capital. The leadership, too, has responded, promising increased air monitoring and extra efforts.

The air problems in China’s urban areas bring together two major challenges facing the country, both of which get special attention in the OECD’s latest Economic Survey of China, released ahead of the annual China Development Forum in Beijing at the weekend.

The first is the challenge of making China’s rapidly growing cities more liveable. At one level, this means ensuring that citizens have access to breathable air, rapid transport and so on. But there are other, less visible, issues. Setting environmental problems aside for a moment, one of the most pressing concerns the status of internal migrants, who account for around 70% of the growth of China’s cities over the past few decades. Faced with an ageing population and stagnating workforce, China needs that movement to continue but, if that’s to happen, its cities will need to set out a proper welcome mat for migrants. As we’ve noted before, the hukou registration system means people leaving their home area can lose access to services like health and education. That’s bad not just for migrants but also their children. Many of them – perhaps 36 million – get left behind, and are raised by grandparents; those who do move with their parents to the cities – an estimated 23 million – don’t always have access to great education. Chinese cities and provinces have pursued piecemeal reform of the hukou system, but there are growing calls – including from the OECD – for cities to grant residential permits to migrants; recent reports suggest substantial reform may not be far off.

The second great challenge is, of course, the environment. Smog-filled cities are just one face of the country’s environmental degradation, which also encompasses desertification, flooding, soil contamination and water pollution. China has made some progress in tackling these: For example, sulphur dioxide emissions have declined somewhat, although the country remains the world’s biggest emitter, and there has been a slight improvement in water quality – Shanghai’s floating pigs notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, grave problems remain and, as the OECD report notes, a wider range of weapons needs to be used to tackle them, including market-driven pricing of fuels like natural gas and coal and greater use of pollution taxes and levies. The potential impact of China on the global environmental is so great that, unless the country rises to the challenge, it won’t just be the citizens of its own cities who are gasping for air.

Useful links

OECD work on China

网站 (中文) (The OECD’s Chinese-language site)

China Development Forum

China’s spoilt brats and America’s disappearing middle class

She's got her own BMW too

Regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley is in Beijing, from where he sends this dispatch.

A recent afternoon brought one of those classes that all lecturers dread: Glazed eyes from one side of the room to the other, and mouths opening and closing in syncopated yawning. Time to tear up the lesson plan and throw out a question: “Hey, did you see the story about the rich kid who beat up that nice couple?” Dull eyes sharpen, slack jaws tighten. Yes, the students have heard about it and, what’s more, they have something to say.

In case you missed the story, here’s what happened: On a recent evening, a middle-class couple was driving home in Beijing. Quite reasonably, they slowed to take a corner, forcing a couple of cars behind them to stop. Incensed, the drivers of the two following cars got out and beat them up.

Road rage, but that was only the half of it: It turned out that one of the drivers was just 15 years old, which meant he was driving his car – a BMW – illegally. Not only that, he warned onlookers against intervening: “Who dares to call the police?” he supposedly shouted. His cockiness can probably be explained by his family connections: The boy is the son of a celebrity army general, Li Shuangjiang, who shows up regularly on TV to sing patriotic ditties.

In the wake of the incident, Major-General Li was put through the media wringer. He visited his son’s victims in hospital, apologized abjectly, and said of the boy, “I didn’t him give a good upbringing.” As for Li junior, Chinese media reports that he’ll go to a correctional facility for a year, but will escape criminal charges because of his age.

The affair was startlingly reminiscent of another incident last year, when the well-connected son of a senior security officer knocked down and killed a university student. That young man, too, shouted a warning to onlookers: “My father is Li Gang.” His words became a national catchphrase, epitomizing what many Chinese seem to feel is the attitude of an arrogant elite that feels itself above the law. 

Certainly, that was the feeling of most of my students. But there was a second strand of opinion: They felt that media reporting of these incidents, and subsequent online commentary, was sensationalist and served no bigger purpose than stirring up bitterness and resentment. “The media should ask itself, ‘why are we reporting this?’,” said one student. “It should think about the bigger social question, and try to make China better.” That, of course, was one of the traditional role assigned to the media by the Chinese Communist Party. But in today’s China, it’s sensationalism – not worthiness – that sells papers.

As for the “bigger social question,” the student isn’t alone in seeing the incident as symptomatic of more than just Beijing’s awful road manners. Many in China worry about the impact of widening inequality on social stability, even if these concerns are expressed in careful language. But whenever you hear China’s leaders referring to the need for a “harmonious society,” it’s usually inequality that’s being talked about.

China was not the only country that got a reminder last week of the risks of “unharmoniousness”. In the United States, there was fresh evidence of how society there has been reshaped over the past decade or so. The middle class, once the solid core of American life, is being hollowed out, leaving a class structure that’s now shaped more like an hourglass. Indeed, some retailers have reportedly rejigged their product lines to focus on either the top, or the bottom, of the economic pile.

The impact of this social shift goes beyond determining what’s on Walmart’s shelves. As the historian John Gray notes, there’s a real danger in undermining the middle class (a risk first identified by Karl Marx): “In the process of [capitalism’s] creative destruction,” says Gray, “the ladder has been kicked away, and for increasing numbers of people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration.” The result, he argues, is the destruction of “the way of life on which capitalism in the past depended”.

That’s not true of China, or at least not yet. The middle class may be under pressure in many developed countries, but in China it’s growing by leaps and bounds. But as Gray suggests – and as the financial crisis of the past few years has shown – the economic impact of capitalism’s forces are less easy to tame than we might wish. And as recent news from both China and the United States suggests, their effect on our societies can be just as tricky to manage.

Find out more

OECD work on income distribution and poverty

Growing Unequal

Perspectives on Global Development

Why China’s economy needs some quality time

Click to see the report

China’s economy has been zooming along over the past few decades, regularly reaching and exceeding annual growth rates of 8%. Pretty stunning, and even more so when compared to the current performance of most developed economies.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that China is now the main – albeit, not the only – engine of the world economy. A comparison with ten years ago illustrates its growing role: Back then, on the eve of the slowdown in 2001, the world economy was growing by about 5%, to which China contributed just over a tenth; last year, in the wake of the Great Recession, the world economy was again growing by close to 5%, but this time China accounted for almost a third of global growth.   

Impressive, but there’s a risk of being led astray by all these numbers – as the old tailors used to say, “never mind the quality, feel the width”. True, China’s boom has been long and has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But some fear its nature – in other words, quality vs. quantity – may not be laying the foundations for long-term sustainable growth.

If they’re right, China risks joining the long and depressing list countries that got stuck in the “middle-income trap”: Of all the economies that were in the middle-income camp in the 1960s, almost three-quarters are still there, or have regressed to low-income status. Among China’s neighbours in Asia, Japan and Korea managed to make the leap; Malaysia  – so far – has not. 

Why not? In essence, the middle-income trap reflects fundamental structural issues in an economy. An economy can often go from low- to middle-income on the back of a plentiful supply of cheap labour – loads of low-paid and relatively uneducated workers assembling sneakers, TVs and cars, and so on. But to make the next leap, those workers need to start “adding value” – dreaming up fancy new products and moving to a greater focus on services, rather than just manufacturing.

China may be at the limits of this first stage. Some economists argue it has now reached the “Lewis turning point”  – the moment when industrial wages start to rise as the supply of plentiful and cheap labour from the countryside dries up. That won’t kill off China’s manufacturing strength overnight, but over the coming years it will become less of an advantage.

As part of its response, China will need to ensure urban jobs remain attractive to people in the countryside, reducing the impact of the hukou system and ensuring that rural migrants have “the right to appropriate health, education and other public services” as the OECD recently noted.

China will need to do more than that, though. Last month, it sent a strong signal of exactly what it plans to do when it released its latest Five-Year Plan. At a time when many developed economies are struggling to expand, it’s striking that the latest plan actually sets a lower target for China’s expansion than its predecessor: 7% vs. 7.5%. In part, that’s probably aimed at reducing the risk of rising inflation in an overheating economy.

“In China, slowing down economic growth is important,” as the IMF’s John Lipsky  was quoted as saying last month. If history is any guide, applying the brakes won’t be easy: Despite the 7.5% target in the last plan, China’s economy actually grew by closer to 11%, as The Economist notes.

But, as The Economist also points out, perhaps the real point of the revised target is to indicate “that the pattern of growth now matters as much as the speed”. That focus is reflected elsewhere in the plan: As Morgan Stanley’s Stephen Roach notes, the plan emphasises the need for China to develop its domestic markets – shifting “the focus away from a powerful export- and investment-led growth dynamic toward an approach aimed at drawing more support from China’s 1.3 billion consumers.”

There will also be additional resources for seven strategic and high-end industries, including next-generation information technology, clean energy sources and biotechnology, all aimed at helping China make the transition to the next phase of economic growth and promoting greener growth.

Will China succeed? We’ll know more in another five years.

Useful links

 China’s Emergence as a Market Economy: Achievements and Challenges – An OECD review of the 12th five-year plan 

OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站 (中文)

Between two worlds: A Chinese student in the US

So where are all the friends?

Around the world, 3.3 million university-level students study abroad. The biggest number come from China, and the most popular destination is the United States. What are their lives like?

In this guest posting, Yeran Zhou, an 18-year-old from Shenzhen in southern China, reflects on his first semester in the U.S.

Mr. Zhou blogs for the Daily Illini, a student newspaper at the University of Illinois.

On August 14, 2010, I boarded a 14-hour flight to America, leaving China for the first time.

I had never been to America before, but people always said I would fit in, mainly because I argued with my  teachers and insisted I wanted to be a filmmaker. So when I was 10, my parents had sent me to weekend classes taught by foreign tutors. After school I spent all my pocket money on pirated Hollywood DVDs and watched every episode of Friends. Soon I concluded that America was a rich and cool country with lots of kids like me.

In ninth grade, I got a taste of how life would be if I stayed on in Chinese education when I took the Zhongkao, a two-day-exam to determine which high schools we could go to. A year of test cramming exhausted me. Upon graduation, the principal told us a harder, crueler test – the  Gaokao – awaited us in three years. And that was when I decided I had to go abroad.

My high school in Shenzhen had a tradition of sending students overseas. Every year some would come back and tell their stories. They said that Chinese students in the U.S. were notorious for only hanging out with each other, but “it can’t be helped”. So when I arrived in America, I was eager to set myself apart from my Chinese peers. I took literature classes, went to dance parties, learned Ultimate Frisbee and blogged for the college newspaper. In other words, I couldn’t wait to be American.

But as it turned out, movies and sitcoms didn’t prepare me for everything in America. In the first week on campus, I was shocked by everyone’s fear of being labeled “antisocial”. Closing the dorm doors was strictly forbidden, and eating alone was to be avoided at all cost. In orientation, there was “Speed Friending”, an activity that turned my brain into an alphabet soup of names and faces.

Back in China, things had worked very differently. Our class of 40 students spent every day together for three years. No one was anxious to make new acquaintances, but everyone always had a couple of intimate friends to talk to.

My old Chinese friends had discussed politics and philosophy, but my new American friends exchanged puns and jokes. American humor was a mystery to me, so a few anxious giggles were usually my only contribution to their conversation. But eventually I discovered that Americans weren’t that hard to impress. “In China there’s no minimum drinking age and I used to get drunk after class,” I would remark casually, and watch their jaws drop.

Meanwhile, the classes were showing me America in a new light. My law professor was infuriated by how often American lawyers put the wrong people in jail. A large part of my literature class was devoted to all the bad things America did to women, immigrants, Native Americans and black people. During discussions my classmates confessed that they somehow felt guilty about being American and growing up in an all-white neighborhood.

I was exhilarated. After all those years spent in a Chinese curriculum, hearing people criticize their own country in class was liberating. With this new freedom to think for myself, I grew more curious and confident every day. I also discovered a passion for books and writing, and spent night after night reading in the library. 

I was adjusting to life in America, but it came with a price. In order to distinguish myself I shunned my Chinese peers, who mostly stayed to themselves. Often I pretended I didn’t speak Chinese at all. One month into the semester, I hadn’t made a single friend from my own country, yet the newspaper editor asked me to blog about Chinese students in America. So I set off to reconnect with my Chinese classmates.

For weeks, I sought them out at coffee shops, in cafeterias, and even on a Chinese social networking website. They told me they were isolated, troubled or sleep-deprived.  Some were terrified of reading and writing assignments. Others were frustrated by not being able to fit in. 

A senior engineering student, for example, told me that it was his father who had made the decision to send him abroad, who chose his school and major, prepared all the paperwork and even wrote the application essay. After coming to America, he avoided all contact with non-Chinese people and spent most of his time alone in the dorm room.

Like him, many Chinese students had been sheltered all their lives. Schools and parents had protected them from life’s choices and uncertainties. Then, suddenly, they found themselves in America, alone and unprepared, caught in a swirl of incomprehensible foreignness.

At the end of my first semester, I no longer tried to pretend to be the same as my American friends. But neither could I say that I truly understood my Chinese peers. So I decided to keep on writing, to tell the stories of my Chinese classmates that they wouldn’t otherwise tell, so that one day the world around me might reconcile.

 Useful links

 OECD work on education, the internationalisation of tertiary education and international migration

 OECD Insights: International Migration

 OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)

A power to transform China’s schools

In this guest posting, Jiang Xueqin, director of Peking University High School’s International Division, looks at how pressure from students and parents is driving reform in Chinese education.

The year 2011 promises to be an exciting one for education reform in China. Last July, the government unveiled its 10-year education development plan, planning more spending and advocating greater experimentation. Education expenditure usually hovers around 3% of Gross Domestic Product, but Beijing aims to now spend 4%. That’s lower than the average 6.2% for developed nations, but it’s still a significant increase. Beijing also promises more local autonomy, which should encourage more competition and diversity.

Concrete action is already being taken. Last November, just after the national education plan was promulgated, I attended two high-level government meetings. In the first, Beijing’s top high schools were told to support and encourage students who wanted to study abroad. I saw that as a sign that China’s leaders recognized that Chinese universities were not producing the managerial and creative talent needed for a 21st century knowledge economy, and so decided that the best short-term solution was to send China’s brightest to the West’s best universities.

In the second meeting, Beijing’s best schools were told to create international divisions as laboratories for reform, and as portals to engage the world. We were told to attract Western experience and expertise in order to reform the public school curriculum, and to educate “globally competitive Chinese citizens.”   

As another sign of how serious Beijing is about education reform, Central China TV’s 7 o’clock news programme, Beijing’s quasi-official mouthpiece, reported on our own high school’s reforms – led by Principal Wang Zheng – to promote freedom and choice, diversity and individuality: No longer do 50 students huddle together diffidently and indifferently, as their teacher lectures to them on multiple-choice test-taking strategies and “correct thinking.” Today, 20 students discuss and debate in groups, as a teacher hovers about, offering advice and encouragement. When the bell rings, students run to science lab or to band practice or to a well-lit study room to check their e-mail.  

Still, there are reasons to wonder about how much is really changing on the ground. (more…)