Editor’s Comment – PISA: Time for a little scepticism

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The PISA test results gave our political and education leaders another opportunity to criticise British schools. But, as Sue Lyle points out in her article 'The Leaning Tower of PISA tests', the picture is much more complex than it at first might seem. The schools in Shanghai that did so well and were held up as such shining examples had recently dismissed, at 14 years old, all but 20 per cent of their populations.  

What was left was a 20 per cent cohort of children who represented the academic elite of the area, and possibly the country. It is analogous to the grammar schools here, which Wilshaw has bravely refused to allow to expand in Kent, on the grounds that they are ‘stuffed full of middle-class children’ and would in no way improve social mobility.

On top of this selectivity, the Shanghai student elite are, to quote Norman Matloff, an American Professor also expressing some scepticism of the results, academic athletes who are trained to pass tests – including the PISA tests. America had the same sort of results as the UK, with us middling in the league tables, a long way behind Asian countries.

Like athletic training, Chinese education is drill, drill, practice, practice. Students in the US, Matloff reminds us, have much better things to do with their time, including leading world popular culture and starting up multi-national internet companies. As anyone who has met Chinese headteachers will tell you, they are desperate for some of the more creative pedagogy that takes place in the UK.

Even former Premier, Wen Jiabao, Matloff points out, has complained about China’s rote-memory approach to education. And Chen Lixin, an engineering professor at Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xi’an, has warned that China produces students who can’t think independently or creatively, and have trouble solving practical problems. He wrote in 1999 that the Chinese education system ‘results in the phenomenon of high scores and low ability’, an observation germane to PISA results. In the 2009 tests, ‘students scored low in independent reading strategies, meaning they rely on teachers’ instruction on what to read,’ according to the Shanghai Daily.

In the United States, as in the UK, a complicating factor is socioeconomic class. Interesting research in the US has found that test scores in states such as Utah, Iowa and Nebraska, which don’t (yet) have a large underclass, are similar to those of the top Asian countries. In 2011, compilation of the PISA data showed that the white (read ‘middle-class and up’) students in Washington, D.C., scored much higher in maths than students in Hong Kong and Taiwan, two of the highest international scorers.

Matloff ends his critique of the PISA test results by pointing out that an Economic Policy Institute study shows that, after socioeconomic data are accounted for, the adjusted ranking for the US is much higher than the raw scores indicate, and it’s a safe bet that the same would be true for the UK.

High scoring, low ability children might ring a bell to many of you. It is very much the direction our system is moving in... Gove’s main education project has been to roll back the weak, but valiant attempts to make UK education relevant to a modern British society and a modern intellectual property-based economy, opting instead for more ‘traditional’, more academic exams and tests, more emphasis on facts, an abandonment of project work and a downgrading of art, music, design and technology, and a skills-based approach to learning.

This all seems to have been done under the banner of ‘The Glorious Past’, regardless of how well that glorious past really served our national interests. Alongside the PISA test results, a new and disturbing report has been issued about the chronic under-productivity of our workforce. There are lots of theories about this, none of which has to do with laziness – the British work longer hours than any of their Western European counterparts.

The first main theory to emerge is that capital investment has been lower – due to a risk-averse elite and an over-reliance on the finance sector and other services. The second is that our industry is failing to use its intellectual talent more seriously than any other advanced nation. The result is that UK managements are full of poor problem-solvers and are failing to introduce new work-process innovations. The second theory is linked, but is even more of an economic time-bomb… It suggests our schools might be teaching the wrong subjects, in the wrong way.

Linking our teaching, learning and assessments to our economic needs is an idea far beyond the capacity for Gove or even the Labour education spokespeople... whoever they are. But the Americans, Singaporeans and, one expects shortly, the Chinese, are radically re-organising their curriculum and assessments to stress learning in depth, higher order thinking, collaborative project work, problem-solving and creativity.

In 2013, we were frogmarched in the opposite direction. Will 2014 be any different?

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