Tag Archives: OECDPISA

Learning From and Beyond PISA: Toward Achievement with Integrity

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Dennis Shirley describes how “imperial” and “insular” imperatives may limit learning about educational policies across countries. Drawing from his new book, The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity, Shirley argues for more sophisticated comparative approaches that support learning from and beyond PISA. Dennis Shirley is Professor Education at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, and a Visiting Professor in Venice International University in the fall semester of 2016.  

In a world of ever-increasing big data, the upcoming release in December of the latest rankings on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) should be cause for celebration. An abundance of international evidence should give policy makers, educational professionals, and the public a treasure trove of new findings about how well students are learning in reading, mathematics and science. With this information we can learn from those systems that excel. We can adapt some of their proven strategies to our own schools. In the process we can ensure that all children are enabled to reach their full potential.

It’s an entirely rational vision for a perfect world.  But we live in an imperfect world.  Policies are not made through careful studies of the available evidence or mindful interpretation when the evidence is ambiguous. In the real world policy is made through a crazy-quilt pattern of conjectures, hyperbole, and sound-bites. Only every now and then, is there reference to actual research.

Consider Australia and the adaptation in some of its states of policies piloted in England and the US. Under the slogan of increasing school autonomy, schools in Western Australia are becoming detached from democratically-elected local authorities. Teacher education throughout the country increasingly is disconnected from higher education and research capacity, with for-profit providers moving into new openings for service provision. International publishers that are located in England and the US such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill are among those taking advantage of increased standardized testing and new digital technologies to expand their market share. “Because of Australia’s close links with England the USA and their influence,” Stephen Dinham has observed in an article entitled The worst of both worlds, “it is not surprising that the myths and beliefs underpinning these developments have been accepted almost without evidence or questioning in Australia.”

The irony is that Australia has done better than either England or the US on PISA. Australia also does far better than the US on many international quality of life indicators, including life expectancy.  Australia is not in the position of developing countries that were compelled for many years to adopt testing and accountability strategies exported from the US to receive education funding from the World Bank.  Yet there seems to have been an imperial imperative at work that has led even some states in more successful countries on PISA like Australia to adopt policies from England and the US, even when there is broad agreement that those policies have led to disappointing results.

A century ago, one could have understood such policy borrowing.  Australia was part of what was unapologetically called the British Empire.  Ever since the London Declaration of 1949, however, Australia has been a free and independent nation.  While there still is an emotional attachment to England, England can no more compel Australia to change its education policies than it can any other nation.

For some critics, the OECD is responsible for spreading marketplace competition, test-based accountability, and curricular narrowing in education.  But matters are not so simple.  In a study on The policy impact of PISA, Simon Breakspear has shown that “Finland was the most commonly listed influential country/economy” in the wake of PISA. As Pasi Sahlberg and Andy Hargreaves and I have shown elsewhere, Finnish education is the opposite of the policies that have been adapted in Australia from England and the US.

So can we do a global scan and produce a slew of countries that have adopted Finnish-style reforms that emphasize collective responsibility, pervasive equity, and a gentle, child-centered philosophy of education? Not really. Right next door to Finland stands Sweden, which has suffered from a humiliating plunge in PISA results and shares a common border and history with Finland. But what Finnish policies have the Swedes taken over thus far? None to date.

A similar situation of a curious insular imperative can be found in Scotland, which rests on the northern border with England.  While it shares any number of similar policies with England as part of the United Kingdom, in education Scotland has endeavored to pursue different policies. As an aggregate, these have led to higher results on PISA. It would seem obvious that the English would be curious about what is going on with their northern neighbors, and would send delegations up to adapt elements from Scotland for their own schools. What independent Scottish educational policies have the English tried out? None so far.

Extending 5,525 miles, the United States has the world’s longest border with Canada, another country that has done well on PISA, especially in the four most populated provinces of Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec. Over 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US, making the overwhelming majority of their schools easily accessible for visitors from south of the border. What Canadian policies have been transferred into the US?  Zilch.

For all of the chatter about data-driven decision-making that has gone on for years now, an anachronistic insular imperative has characterized many nations when it comes to policy borrowing. Their policy makers have been tone deaf. Such policy makers have failed to learn from nations that have performed better, even when they share geographical proximity, a common language, and cultural similarities.

Why is this?  Long-standing and deeply ingrained attitudes of one country towards another play a role. The Swedish economy is larger than the Finnish one. The same can be said of the English in regard to Scotland or the US in relation to Canada.  Countries that lead in economic clout appear to have a hard time admitting that they might learn from others who do better in education.  It’s easier to be insular.

The insular imperative has been related to the imperial imperative in paradoxical ways. How can an imperious stance be connected with insularity at one and the same time? This is possible if a nation projects its own policies and practices abroad for others to learn from while failing to model the position of a curious and open-minded learner in its own conduct. It is possible if a nation assumes that the answers to change all lie on one side, and that others, perhaps smaller and less powerful, have little to impart. It’s hard not to connect a certain arrogance to the ways that the imperial and insular imperatives have interacted over the years. This would not matter so much at a purely political level, if students were not the ones who pay the price in terms of lost learning opportunities. It would not matter on the level of theory if teachers did not suffer from a sense of diminished professionalism in practice.

For these reasons we should welcome the publication of the new PISA results in December. We should be honest about the many factors that make for a given country’s educational policies, and shouldn’t overstate the significance of PISA in this regard. In part the lack of response could be a good thing, since PISA doesn’t measure important aspects of a country’s national cultural heritage. I am a Visiting Professor at Venice International University in Italy this fall, and many of my students studied ancient Greek and Latin in the country’s classical secondary schools. These are popular and precious parts of Italy’s identity. Simply because they don’t fit neatly into economic quests to maximize human capital does not mean that they do not have their own disciplinary integrity and should not be passed on to future generations. That we should learn from PISA does not mean that we should not also think beyond it.

When the new PISA results are published in December, let’s examine the evidence anew to see what we can learn. Let’s pass from an obsolete imperial imperative to a more balanced interpretive one that sustains education as an enterprise that is both deep and wide. Let’s abandon the insular imperative to look only within and replace it with a global imperative to learn from schools and systems wherever they may be. If we can do these things wisely and with sensitivity, we can combine achievement with integrity.  We can, and we must, create an enduring and sustainable legacy of all that we hold most dear.


What’s new? OECD Report: Gender Equality in Education

The most recent OECD report, titled “The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior, Confidence,” shows that the wage gaps between men and women worldwide might have more to do with career decisions that are being made by students much earlier than we think.

Confidence gap

The results of this survey show that at the age of fifteen, girls are typically ahead of boys in reading, boys are only slightly ahead of girls in math, and there is barely any difference between the two in science. The report found that when they looked at attitude, behavior, and confidence, boys are more confident than girls even when they underperform, whereas girls tend to be more anxious about math, even when they perform well in the subject.

Career aspiration gap

Despite the fact that girls tend to outperform boys in STEM subject areas, it is the boys who expect to have careers in engineering or technology. In the U.S., for example, 15% of boys expect careers in engineering or computing, compared with only 2.5% of girls (despite the fact that boys and girls perform similarly in STEM subject areas); girls are more likely to aspire to careers in health services.

Teachers and parents

What does this gender gap tell us about parent and teacher attitudes, work life, and society? The report found that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter careers in STEM fields, except in East Asian countries where both boys and girls are expected to enter careers in STEM fields, and where boys and girls both outperform almost every other country. They also looked at how boys and girls spend their time outside of school and found that boys spend more time playing video games, while girls spend more time on homework. Another difference they found is that when boys read, they are more likely to read comic books, whereas girls are more likely to read fiction. Finally, girls are more likely to get higher grades in school than boys. The report suggests that this might have more to do with compliance than achievement, a result that might actually push boys to work harder, and to expect to work harder throughout their careers.

What’s new?

While much of this information might not seem new to many readers (boys like video games and comic books; girls lack confidence in math), the implications present some interesting ideas for parents and teachers. For example, the report suggests that students might benefit from greater choice in what they read at school. The report also suggested that there is some evidence that single-player video games might promote problem solving and math skills. Finally, educators need to think about the relationship between curriculum and instruction, gender, and student performance. For example, girls tend to perform better in math when they are allowed to solve problems independently. (Note: These topics have all been addressed by education researchers, such as those who study literacy, technology, and gender.)

As Michael Reiss noted in a post on the IOE London blog this morning, while teacher education used to focus on issues of inequality and teacher assumptions, teacher training courses today might be less likely to go in-depth into these issues. According to Reiss, “We need to get back to realising that how school students see themselves and their subjects is important. If we don’t, too many young people, especially girls, will continue to believe that science is not for them and that they aren’t really that good at it – and then they won’t be.”

Deirdre Faughey

For more on the OECD report released today (IEN will be retweeting posts as they come out during the day):

A closer look at gender gaps in education and beyond | OECD Insights Blog http://buff.ly/1M8GPt6

Obsessing over differences between boys and girls at school won’t fix anything http://buff.ly/1M8GWoy

Why are girls in the UK doing so much less well than boys in school science? | IOE LONDON BLOG http://buff.ly/1Nknl8a

Playing video games can boost exam performance, OECD claims http://buff.ly/17UQoi3

Neues Gender-Pisa: Mathe ist „männlich“, gute Schulleistungen „weiblich“ – Wissen – Tagesspiegel http://buff.ly/1BKUDsK

Students aren’t being taught maths correctly, creating a ‘huge’ learning gap – National – NZ Herald News http://buff.ly/1CB0IcB