How the world reported PISA

Main findings on student perforamnce
Main findings on student performance

Much of the media coverage around PISA focused on the strong performance of Asia’s students. But regular followers of the OECD’s assessments of worldwide student performance had something else on their minds: where’s Finland?

They weren’t the only ones feeling troubled: “The golden days are over,” lamented Finnbay, a Finnish media outlet, as it reported that Finland, long a PISA poster-child, had “dropped from the top of the league.” Yle, the national broadcaster, even wondered if the country’s education system might be at risk of sharing “the fate of another fallen national champion – Nokia.” Numerous explanations were offered for the Nordic country’s performance, including that it may be a victim of its own PISA success.

“Some argue that complacency and focus on explaining the past to thousands of education tourists have shifted attention away from developing Finland’s own school system,” wrote Pasi Sahlberg, who works on education reform in Finland. In response, Finland’s education minister, Krista Kiuru, promised “strong action,” according to Finnbay. There was handwringing, too, across the border: “No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in maths over a ten-year span,” announced TheLocal, a Swedish news outlet.

Tremors from the Nordic countries’ PISA showing were felt in the United Kingdom, where the Financial Times reported that the performance of the country’s students was “stagnating”. That, combined with the results of Finland and Sweden in PISA, put the education minister, Michael Gove, “under pressure to defend his Scandinavian-inspired education reforms,” according to the FT.  In response, it wrote, Mr Gove said “a ‘more rigorous system of accountability’ was also needed to make sure that poor performance did not go unchecked.”

As well as looking at national results, the media also examined PISA itself. In The Guardian, Mona Chalabi discussed “the basic claim of the assessment – that it is able to accurately capture the full range of students’ abilities and compare them across the world.” (You can find some FAQs about PISA’s methodology and approach here.) There was discussion, too, of the usefulness of international comparisons in education. Writing in a Washington Post blog before the PISA release, Valerie Strauss warned about the “fetishization of international test scores”. As The Economist noted, however, “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.”

Away from making international comparisons, PISA also looks into how factors outside the classroom affect student performance, most notably, perhaps, social background. The importance of some of these seemed to receive particular recognition in France, where Libération (in French) described the country as the “world champion in education inequalities”.

Writing on The Huffington Post, Jacques Attali, a leading economist and public intellectual in France, warned that the relatively weak performance of disadvantaged children in France’s schools posed an existential crisis for his country: “Unless this changes, millions of talented individuals … will be lost, and they will leave, frustrated, to go to other countries or underground. France will lose her soul in this. And her future.”

What about the “winners” – the Chinese city of Shanghai as well as OECD Members like Japan and Korea, among other Asian economies, that topped the PISA tables? While their achievements in education were widely recognized, there was concern, too, about the price being paid by the region’s hard-working students.

Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted that while Korean students performed well in PISA, the results also demonstrated that “they showed a lack of interest in the subjects.” This is sometimes attributed to the relentless pressure on Korean kids to succeed, which sees many follow an intensive eight-hour day in school with another three or four hours in an evening cram-school.

“For South Korean teenagers a double shift of school, every week day, is just a way of life,” the BBC’s Reeta Chakrabarti reported. But there are signs of a shift in attitudes, she added, quoting the country’s education minister, Seo Namsoo: “We still have a long way to go,” he said, “but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier.”

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PISA 2012

Asia’s students storm PISA 2012

Main findings on student perforamnce
Click for main findings on student performance

Students in Asia have topped the rankings in the latest round of the OECD’s PISA programme of international student assessment. The results, released this morning, show countries and economies in Asia grabbing seven of the top 10 slots in mathematics, the focus subject of the PISA 2012 round.

Students in the Chinese city of Shanghai continued their impressive showing from PISA 2009, taking first place not just in mathematics but also reading and science, the two other core subjects tested by PISA.

The strength of their performance in mathematics, especially, is striking: In effect, the city’s 15-year-olds scored the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above students in most OECD countries. Not only that, more than half of them – or around 55% – performed at the highest levels in maths, compared to an average in OECD countries of around one in eight students.

Of course, Shanghai is not China – a distinction that tends to get lost in coverage of the PISA results. The city is the wealthiest in China, and the life experience and education of its young residents are a long way removed of those of young Chinese in, say, rural areas. (That said, unpublished results from the PISA 2009 assessments in other parts of China showed a  “remarkable performance,” according to the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA.)

Shanghai’s students have also benefited from the city’s bold efforts to reform its schools. The result, according to The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, “is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools … These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.”

But while Shanghai should not be read as representative of China, its strong performance in maths is in line with that of many of the other Asian economies in PISA. Undoubtedly, some will turn to wider cultural explanations for this phenomenon. However, the impressive performance of Asian economies like Singapore and Korea across the range of subjects examined in PISA suggests other factors may be at work within education systems.

Chief among these, according to the OECD, is how these countries and economies approach teaching: “Top performers, notably in Asia, place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encourage them to work together and prioritise investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes,” the organisation said in a press statement. “They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them.”

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Today sees the release of a special data tool designed to let users explore the performance of individual countries as well as many of the key issues examined by PISA. These include how boys and girls do, the impact of social background, and the role of students’ self-belief and motivation.

Here’s a sampling of some of the ways in which you can explore PISA 2012.

  • Main findings, country-related content and video streams can be accessed at PISA 2012.
  • You can also find a useful overview (pdf) of the main results as well as a snapshot (pdf) of how countries performed.
  • On the Internet, there’s a Facebook page for parents and a special PISA Day website and, later on Tuesday, a webinar.
  • You can also follow PISA 2012 on Twitter.
  • And you can read Andreas Schleicher’s thoughts at the OECD educationtoday blog.
  • Full results and analysis from PISA 2012 are presented in the following reports (with more to come next year): Vol. I presents the main findings on student performance; Vol. II looks at issues of equity and fairness in education; Vol. III looks at student engagement and self-beliefs; and Vol. IV looks at the role of how schools are run and resourced. And there’s a special report on what the United States can learn from PISA.