The Learning Power of PISA?

Professor Alma Harris says a blind spot has emerged with a focus on PISA as a target.

While we want better educational outcomes and life chances for the young people of Wales, the question remains, at what cost? The current international obsession with PISA and its league tables of the ‘top performing education systems’ have mesmerized and entranced policy makers and politicians around the world. The consequential drive for a better position in PISA has prompted educationalists from many different countries to fly thousands of miles to Finland, China and Korea in the hope of finding the key to educational success. Inevitably, they return disappointed as the cultural contexts in which these education systems are located are so very different from their own.

While there are some features of education systems that are readily transferable, it remains the case that the cultural influences, that largely account for and explain high performance, cannot be replicated. This is not to propose that we return to a time before PISA or abandon the international tests but rather to temporarily press the pause button and ask what is PISA for and most importantly, who is PISA for? To answer the first question is relatively straightforward –PISA is an international evaluation of education systems, it is a comparative measure. Or rather it was just a comparative measure. The moment that PISA moved from a measure to a target it appears that all rationality was lost. In the blinkered drive to secure a better PISA score, the global educational game radically shifted its focus from children to numbers.

Now there are many who would say that a better PISA result is a proxy for better educational outcomes and they could be right. But how do we know that a move upwards in the PISA league tables equates with better learning experiences and better learning outcomes for young people? How do we know that a higher PISA ranking guarantees excellence and equity?

In the move from ‘measure to target’ a PISA blind spot has emerged. Firstly, there is a general acceptance that PISA is a reliable and valid measure of educational success, despite some dissenting voices. This mutual view is accompanied by an almost recalcitrant reluctance to look at PISA performance critically and in context. The less palatable aspects of high performing education systems have simply been airbrushed out. Secondly, romantic accounts of the high performing education systems are prevalent and the many causal attributions of success are popular and pervasive. The suggestion that these accounts may be flawed or simply plain wrong is to run the gauntlet of international derision. Thirdly, in the rush for PISA delivery, many in the policy-making world have not adequately analyzed what these high performing systems may be missing and what the day-to-day consequences might be for children.

A recent empirical study has collected evidence from 7 differentially performing education systems to shed light on the PISA blind spot. Its findings challenge some of the popular and widely held assumptions about the ‘high performing education systems’ identified through PISA. Not everything is as rosy as it might seem if you scratch the surface of these international rankings. Based on PISA, we should be formulating education policy based on the educational practices and processes in China or Korea. But recent commentaries and analyses underline the stark reality of being a child in the education systems in both of these countries. The relentless engagement in after-school tutoring deprives young people of sleep, social activity and sometimes sanity. If this is what it takes to be a top performer in PISA, is such misery really worth it? When you put the child back into the PISA equation being at the top looks singularly less attractive.

PISA is also very lucrative. The commercial activity that has been spawned through this single global benchmark has been astonishing. There are private consultants and companies in rich abundance eager to sell PISA solutions. To do so they have to sell stories and strategies plus the hope of success. Much of what they sell is premised on the notion that the ‘high performing countries’ have exclusive strategies and that simply replicating these will guarantee better PISA performance. Our study shows that high performing and low performing systems largely tend to use the same improvement strategies but to different effect. We have not found a ring-fenced set of exclusive strategies for the high performers but this convenient truth is still being pedaled for financial gain.

Finally, in the rush to look to the high performers in the East, no one has really asked what the East could learn from other education systems, particularly those in the West. Here are some initial thoughts. For starters, they could learn about teaching effectively in multi-cultural and diverse classrooms, as Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland and Korea are fairly culturally homogeneous. Subsequently, they could learn about including or indeed recognizing children with special needs. In these countries children with special needs are still generally taught separately with zero or very little inclusion in mainstream classes. Lastly, they could learn about outstanding higher education provision and why some of best Universities in the world exist in systems that are not at the top of the PISA tables.

So where does this take us? It takes us to the second question –who is PISA for? If we are serious about success for every student, irrespective of context and circumstance, maybe policy borrowing from other systems is not a good idea. So what is the alternative? Investing in research-based solutions that work in context offers one possibility. In the current policy climate, this may seem like the road less travelled but ultimately, it may provide a better return for learners than emulating the educational practices of the top PISA performers.

Professor Alma Harris was Senior Policy Adviser for the Welsh Government assisting with system transformation and reform between 2009 and 2012. She is a Professor of Educational Leadership at the Institute of Education, London.

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