Responding to PISA 2015: Reframing for a humanistic future of education

Last week, when the PISA 2015 scores were released, Thomas Hatch shared a response and a scan of headlines from around the world. We reached out to an international group of scholars and asked them to share their own response to the PISA results as well. Over the next few days we will be posting their comments. Today we share a response from Dr. Dennis Shirley, of Boston College:

Most discussions about PISA are centered around the top performers on the rankings and what can be learned from them–but there are more important aspects to which we should pay attention. I’m impressed by the way that the OECD consistently defines PISA as a tool to help nations to progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. These include eradicating extreme poverty, ensuring health care for all, and providing free and high-quality education at the primary and secondary school levels to all of the world’s students. We need good data to measure our progress towards those goals. If PISA is one tool among many that can help with this undertaking, why wouldn’t we want to use it?

But on one point there is no doubt: we need a complete re-framing of the competitive cul-de-sac that too often accompanies the release of PISA scores. The focus on reading, math, and science excludes important curricular areas that are essential to a sound and balanced education. Narrowing in on those three topics while neglecting the social studies and civics skills desperately needed in a world characterized by brinkmanship and bluster hardly can provide a complete picture of where a given jurisdiction stands or where it needs to progress.

So let’s study PISA results not to pit one nation against another, but to learn from one another. Let’s be open-minded and curious, mindful of the international geopolitical context we all now inhabit and the dangerous siren call towards an anachronistic insular imperative of nationalism, exclusion, and one-upmanship.

The world needs a radical change of course. We need a more inspiring global imperative of cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. We need a new world in which test scores are only one part—and a small part at that—of an agenda that moves all of us closer towards the Sustainable Development Goals and a humanistic future for education.

Dennis Shirley, author, The New Imperatives of Educational Change:  Achievement with Integrity, Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, and Editor-in-Chief, The Journal of Educational Change.

For more on the recent PISA results, explore the following recent articles:

“How Do American Students Compare to Their International Peers?” (The Atlantic, 12/7)

The Best Students in the World (U.S. News & World Report, 12/6)

Behind the world’s best students is a soul-crushing, billion-dollar private education industry (Quartz, 12/11)


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