PISA Treatment? Exploring the Side Effects of Education Reform

by Alma Harris, Yong Zhao, and Michelle Jones

In this the latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, and Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, discuss some of the key ideas in Zhao’s latest book, What Works May Hurt – Side Effects in Education. For a related discussion, see Zhao, Harris, and Jones’ latest piece in TES.

The PISA bandwagon continues. This juggernaut of educational assessment has dominated the global debate about educational change for almost two decades now. The first PISA results were published in December 2001 and since then PISA has strengthened its grip on policymaking.

While PISA has proffered the opportunity to compare the performance of different countries, based on its data, it has also contributed to an international credence in borrowing from “the best.” While the world-renowned Finish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, advises not to try to copy Finland this advice is often ignored in the competition for better system and school outcomes. He says ‘while it is true that we can certainly learn from foreign systems and use them as backdrops for better understanding of our own, we cannot simply replicate them’.

The idolisation of certain education systems over others remains a strong trend that influences the global discourse about education reform. We hear a lot about Singapore, Finland, Ontario, and Shanghai but far less about other jurisdictions, like the Netherlands, that also have performed relatively well on a range of external indicators, including PISA. Yet, as Sahlberg and Hargreaves argue PISA data has also shed important light on issues of equity.”

Without the data that PISA has generated over the years,” they point out, “calls for enhanced equity would not be part of the education policy conversation in the countries that have suffered from inequitable education systems, including the U.S.”

The verdict on PISA remains mixed and, in some corners, still highly contested. As Simon Breakspeare notes: ‘It is time to put PISA in its place. The problem lies in how PISA has come to play such a defining role in determining educational performance and progress’. In the end education systems, like schools, focus on what gets measured and other important issues, like health, wellbeing, socio-emotional development etc. are in danger of being marginalised or left out altogether.

In his new book, the orchestrator of PISA, Andrea Schleicher maps the development and the successes of PISA. ‘World Class: Building a 21st Century School System‘ rehearses many of the well-known arguments for this international assessment and preferred reform strategies. In this book, Schleicher argues that ‘one of the most important insights from PISA’ is that education systems ‘could be changed and made to perform’. He also proposes that culture is not necessarily an important consideration when addressing reform at scale. He cites the success of many countries like Mexico, Germany, Columbia, and Peru that have improved their performance in PISA despite their context and culture.

There are two important observations to be made here. Firstly, the term “world-class” is relatively meaningless because it is not possible to say that a practice is ‘good’, ‘best’ or ‘effective’ in all settings, on all occasions and with all students. It largely depends on the contextual conditions and the cultural setting in which this practice is effective in the first place. Often things work well because of the contextual conditions that enable them to work, not because they are universally effective.

Secondly by citing countries like Mexico, Columbia and Peru, there is the impression that other countries, also facing an uphill struggle to improve educational outcomes, can easily follow this well-trodden pathway to PISA glory. Far less is said in Schleicher’s book, however, about countries that have failed to make any real progress on PISA, like Indonesia or Malaysia, despite borrowing some of the strategies of the more successful performers. Countries who have failed to lift their PISA performance having borrowed from the best tend not to make the OECD headlines.

Inevitably, there are a complex set of interrelated factors plus substantial differences across educational systems, political systems, societies, and cultures that interact, both positively and negatively, with any reform process. The ‘side-effects’ of certain policy decisions and approaches are also often factored out or ignored.

In his latest book Yong Zhao argues that what works can hurt. Like medical products, education policies and practices that are effective in achieving some outcomes can have adverse side effects on other, perhaps, more important outcomes. For example, the education systems that are effective in producing high PISA scores can cause damage to students’ confidence and other aspects of well-being. Likewise, policies and practices that benefit some students can hurt others. For example, teachers with high academic performances in secondary schools have been found to benefit high performing students but hurt low performing students, contradicting the policy recommendation derived from PISA data that school systems should recruit high performing graduates into teaching.

Currently, PISA promotes competition between countries and prompts a deficit view i.e. why is our system performing less well than others in PISA? instead of ‘in what way is our education system good and how can we build upon that? As an alternative, position therefore we propose that countries should identify their own strengths and build on them, drawing on a policy learning approach rather than a policy borrowing approach. In other words, while we can learn from other countries and helpfully look at their success and failures, the mature policy response is to build upon and extend what already works well in context and to focus far more from learning within the system, rather than outside it.

Good things are happening in all education systems, somewhere. The three-year cycle of PISA has become a distractor as policy attention inevitably turns competing in a race that most countries cannot win. Hopefully, in time, PISA will encourage policy makers to focus far more on learning about their own context, rather than wishing to be another country altogether.

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