Every four years the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores rock the world of education, as students from 30 different countries are ranked according to their performance in mathematics, science and reading.
Whether we like standardised assessments or not, tests like PISA have come to be regarded as an accurate reflection of a country’s progress. Education, after all, shapes a country, along with its future leaders and scientists.
Over the years, various studies have been conducted to analyse the merits of successful education systems around the world. Immediately after the PISA scores come out, experts take to investigating what countries like Singapore, Finland, Shanghai and Estonia (among others who top the scores) are doing differently. Education has now become a race. And there seems to be no universal, one-size-fits-all formula that can guarantee academic prowess.
1n 2015, another wave of PISA scores swept across the world, causing policymakers and educators to hit the books once again in order to uncover the secret behind the continued success of East Asia, Estonia and Finland. But it should lead us to recognise that there is something we are still not doing right, for as long as there is a gap between the performance of these countries and the rest of world. So how many PISA scores is it going to take for us to realise that the problem lies not with students, teachers and policymakers, but rather in our whole approach?
Education is not a race. The PISA scores are by no means a way to measure intelligence and aptitude, but are rather markers or indicators to understanding what works and what does not. Analysis of these countries and their successes, however, has fast turned into pitting them against each other – an “anything that works” approach. What we seem to be forgetting in our panic to race to the top of the PISA pyramid is that what works for one country may not necessarily work for another. Each country has a unique set of factors that come into play when it comes to education. Experts believe that culture and policy matter when it comes to achieving successful PISA scores. Yet the PISA results themselves demonstrate that expenditure only plays a part. In poorer countries, the amount of public spending per pupil is associated with higher test scores. But in richer states that spend more than about $50,000 per pupil in total between the ages of 6 and 15, this link falls away. An interesting point to bear in mind is that pupils in Poland and Denmark have, in effect, the same average results in science tests – even though Denmark spends about 50% more per pupil.
What we are failing to see here is that there is no common denominator for success. Instead, each of the leading countries is using methods that work for them. While they might share some common factors, each approaches education uniquely. Finland, for example, focuses on an early education, late schooling approach, with an emphasis on developing good social and communication skills along with a joy for learning. Shanghai’s recurring success, on the other hand, is attributed to a home environment that stresses academic discipline at an early age in order to get good grades (and “tiger parents” who make sure their children really do put that effort in). This is also true for most other East Asian countries including Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, among others. Shanghai also has an adaptive education policy, along with well-paid teachers. Singapore’s success rides on heavy investment into implementing successful pedagogy techniques, while Estonia’s policy of giving equal opportunities to students of all backgrounds – a remnant from the Soviet days – has helped it rank consistently well in the PISA scores.
When the statistics are viewed from this perspective, the answer seems fairly simple. An individualistic approach will allow each country to play on its own strengths and overcome the weaknesses within its educational system. Consulting with teachers will also help policymakers identify problems at a grassroots level, allowing educators to stop struggling students from falling behind. Ultimately, when it comes to education, we really can’t hope to make effective changes without actually including teachers in the discussion.
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