What we should learn from the leaning tower of PISA

pisaThe latest PISA results have just been released and, surprise, surprise, Australian schools have slipped further down the rankings. More depressingly we’re not only doing worse against other countries but we are slipping in absolute terms against our own previous years results.

So the results are getting worse, that’s becoming boringly repetitive news. But what should we be doing about it? That’s where things get interesting.

The interesting thing is to take a look at how other countries have reacted and are analyzing the results.

The New York Times has a great report on the American situation which quotes from the team that creates and models the PISA tests:

Here’s what the models show: Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

Now it’s not that the USA is doing that, they suffer from many of the same issues we do – and with similar consequences. But that’s what the PISA modelers think make for success.

The UK is interesting because it has very much gone down the same road we have – thinking that more rigour and testing will make the difference. They’ve found, much to their unhappiness, that it has not. According to The Guardian Scotland is attacking declining results by:

John Swinney, the Scottish education secretary, admitted the Pisa figures “undoubtedly make uncomfortable reading” but said its findings underlined the “plain message” that sweeping reforms of school education were needed. Those would include detailed attainment measures for each school – attacked by critics as new league tables, and devolving control to schools and communities.

Meanwhile similar changes in England showed no improvement and the pushing of selective grammar schools “led to middle class students doing better at the expense of the more disadvantaged”.

In contrast, Singapore is now topping the PISA ranks. The Education Ministry (MOE) said that:

the latest test, as well as past Pisa cycles, highlight the deliberate curricular shifts it has made over the years to trim syllabuses and give more time to higher order thinking skills.

They went on to say:

For this, we have to thank supportive parents and dedicated teachers, who have brought out the best in our students…

One of the things that stands out like a sore thumb with Singapore’s results is that there are very few students who aren’t succeeding. Again and again we see that the core problem in places like Australia, the US, and the UK is inequality of opportunity and outcome. And it’s no use thinking that it’s sort of OK because your own child is doing OK – it does none of us any good to live in a country filled with poorly educated people.

Over the next 24 hours there will be yet more political hand-wringing about the declining state of our education. People will say we should spend more money, we should spend it differently; we should let students have more freedom, we should go back to the basics; we should find better teachers; we should punish under-performing teachers. It will go round and round the same well-worn paths. And nothing will change.

So here’s my contribution to the broken record: We need a bi-partisan plan that we stick to as a nation. It needs to address teaching, curriculum, and equality nationally  – this is not a State issue. And we need to stick with it for more than a five-minute sound-bite. If you get the foundations right the tower you build will be solid. Need a starting point? Let’s not just look at the PISA results and moan. Let’s learn from what they can tell us. I’m going to quote the PISA team’s analysis on what works again:

Here’s what the models show: Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

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