Posts tagged ‘PISA’

The speed of things

According to Yong Zhao one of the biggest flaws of PISA is that it “directs the world’s attention to the past instead of pointing to the future.”  Yet education systems and policy makers rely on international assessments such as PISA to gauge student performance in maths, science and reading.

In World Class Learners, Zhao admits that based on data comparisons, countries performing extremely well on international tests such as China and Taiwan tend to score lower in perceived entrepreneurial capabilities.  The good news is that Australia scores relatively high when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Harvard Business Review had an interesting article last week on the fastest moving digital economies.  The authors developed an index to gauge how countries compare in terms of their readiness for the digital economy.  Looking at performance over five years (2008-2013), they assigned 50 countries into four trajectories: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out and Watch Out.

Australia currently sits in the ‘Stall Out’ quadrant – having achieved a high level of evolution but losing momentum and at risk of falling behind. Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Estonia, the US and New Zealand are among the countries in the Stand Out quadrant.  These are countries who continue to invest in world-class digital infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship and have governments which support and encourage growth of the digital ecosystem.

The authors’ advice for countries like ours is to invest in innovation, look globally for new markets and find ways of attracting ‘talented young immigrants’ to revive innovation quickly.

If as Zhao says schools must transform into global enterprises capable of educating globally competent entrepreneurs, then we need new measures that look forward – beyond traditional boundaries.

I wonder whether we need to be looking at schooling in the same way countries assess readiness for the digital economy?  Do we need a Digital Education Index based on key drivers?  For example, when schools deliver a curriculum (especially electives) are they aligning them with “Stand-Out” or the delivery of traditional subjects aligned with “Stall Out”?

Digital is no longer about hardware or software.  It isn’t about the number of computers or iPads in classrooms.  When we talk about digital education it encompasses the mindsets, policies, users, trends and infrastructure that support this dynamic and ever-evolving ecosystem.  An ecosystem that our learners are a part of and will inevitably shape based on their needs and ever-changing expectations.

The authors of the HBR article predict that the “next billion consumers to come online will be making their digital decisions on a mobile device – very different from the practices of the first billion.”

How will schooling be different from last year or even last week so we don’t end up in “Stall Out”?











Should all roads lead to PISA?

It was interesting to read the global response against PISA in the Guardian last week.  It follows on from Yong Zhao’s recent blog posts outlining the negative impacts of PISA rankings on education systems and education policy.

The open letter from academics called for the 2015 PISA tests to be scrapped.  The group expressed their concern at the ‘distorting effect’ PISA is having on educational practice.  They claim in short that PISA leads to a focus on narrow outcomes, short-term policy fixes, the commercialisation of educational services and endangers the overall wellbeing of students and teachers.

The letter concludes with constructive ideas that may help to address the challenge of improving schooling for all students.  It highlights the need for greater transparency, collaboration and accountability in delivering quality learning and teaching across OECD countries.

The authors assert: “OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning. We are deeply concerned that measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”

It’s difficult to disagree with the concerns raised in the open letter but I think we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.  For me, the benefit of instruments like PISA should be used by effective educators along with broad data sets to help inform improvements in learning and teaching.  Standardised tests become problematic when they are hijacked or used for utilitarian purposes, which have little to do with learning and teaching and more to do with political point scoring or sectional interests.

Schools become easy targets when these tests are used as the basis of league tables or quick fix policies and the honest efforts of schools to improve are disrupted or derailed.  I agree that PISA in its current form doesn’t do justice to the complexity of schooling in today’s world or the cultural traditions of OECD nations.

I hope the global consternation will lead to deeper and more transparent discussions over how data is used to improve the quality and relevancy of schooling for all.

PS:  Yong Zhao will be with us in Parramatta next month to deliver the annual Ann D Clark lecture.  His keynote on the need for new paradigms and ways of assessing ‘learning’ is relevant and timely not only for us but for education systems everywhere.




All that glitters isn’t gold

The release of the PISA results last year confirm Shanghai’s status as the world’s top ranked education system in Maths, Science and Reading.  All credit to Shanghai and its teachers but are the results the key drivers for quality learning and teaching which China seeks to pursue?  Probably not.

Ian Johnson in the New Yorker magazine reports on the rise of concerns regarding China’s approach to education and possible alternative models of education. Johnson follows the journey of China’s first Waldorf school in Chengdu.  He writes that while Shanghai is widely praised internationally, many Chinese intellectuals see ‘education as among the biggest problems facing the country.’   There is even growing discussion on how to reform China’s public schools as more and more parents look to the West for alternative models of schooling.

Among those quoted in the article, a university student whose recently published book articulates the growing discontent: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism.”

Those who are critical of China’s current education system are concerned that the country won’t be able to compete with an innovative West. Chinese-born academic Yong Zhao admits in his book World Class Learners, “the focus on academic achievement is the continuation of a long Chinese tradition that puts book knowledge above all others.”  Education in the age of globalisation needs to deliver much more than ‘book knowledge’.

After reading the article, I’ve concluded that China is no different to any other nation which views education as an investment in its future.  As in the West, the traditional model of schooling is being challenged albeit for different reasons and although Shanghai students may be ahead of their Western counterparts in international measures, the moral is that sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold.


What we can learn from PISA?

It was interesting to read the range of commentary last week around the latest PISA results. If Australian students are slipping towards a mathematical wilderness, spare a thought for Finland who was out-ranked by Estonia.  Yong Zhao‘s attempt at translating the Finnish newspapers was first-rate.

The most balanced views on PISA came from Dr Ken Boston, former director-general of NSW education and Sir Michael Barber, former advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on where we should be focusing our attention and efforts.

While Australian students may have slipped behind East Asia in maths, science and reading, Dr Boston says we should forget comparing ourselves with Finland or Shanghai because they are so culturally dissimilar.  Instead, we should be comparing ourselves with ‘like’ OECD countries such as Canada, which performed significantly better than us in maths and reading.

Canadian provinces such as Ontario turned around its school system in less than a decade.  It did this by recognising that to improve learning required improving the capabilities of its teachers.  The system identified three key areas and focused on research and data to inform their decision making.  The improvement in student learning reflect this commitment to teacher quality, student equity and learning excellence.

My concern is that we are still distracted by the noise and educational policy chaos.  I’ve written previously that ideology seems to carry more weight than evidence and by the time the next PISA results are released we will still be debating funding models, a national curriculum and phonics.  So what can we learn from the successful practices of Ontario and those highly ranked nations in PISA?graph

Sir Michael Barber states the first is that talent is a myth – “Those countries that believe some are born smart or bright while others aren’t, and reinforce that through the education system, will never be among the top performers. Pacific Asia’s focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way.”  The second is a focus on learning and teaching (what is actually happening in classrooms).  The third is an investment in building teacher capacity and the one that often gets overlooked – persist with the strategies that work.

These messages transcend cultures and countries – it is what distinguishes high performing systems and if we are going to address the equity gap that exists in our schools then we must be willing to listen and learn.

Those who know me well know that I am impatient at the pace of change. Too often we underrate what can be achieved in transforming school cultures but it doesn’t happen over the course of a school year just look at Ontario.  I am not raising the surrender flag here and retreating but I am realistic about what is required.  One of the biggest challenges we face is ensuring our politicians, unions, associations and teachers support the right drivers for change.

Let’s finally move from an excuse, blame and rationalisation paradigm to one defined by collaboration, coherence, evidence and trust.  It seems to me that the former saps energy, the latter energises.

The Next West Wing

An opportunity to discuss education policy on the eve of a Presidential election.  (Courtesy ~BostonBill~)

Recently I attended a meeting with Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz, two senior education researchers and US government advisors on education policy. Hosted by the new Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in the NSW Department of Education, this high level briefing provided an opportunity to discuss education policy in relation to worldwide trends and a broader understanding of the current US state of play on the eve of a Presidential election.

For the last few decades Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz have been important contributors to this discussion, advising US policy makers including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

They made the point that the educational agenda over this period has been largely driven by policies to:

  1. evaluate teachers on a narrow set of criteria to identify and remove the bottom 10 per cent of under-performing teachers
  2. introduce Charter Schools giving parents greater choice and to harness business capital to help fund schooling
  3. set narrow educational standards through basic skills testing

Tucker and Schwarz believe this has been a process of reform by attacking the system. Interestingly, the evidence shows that despite a 270% increase in expenditure on education in real terms under the last two presidential administrations, US schools have gone backwards on all indicators.

Clearly this agenda doesn’t work.

When they went looking for what did work, they found high performing countries (including Australia) had policies that were almost opposite to those in the US.

These countries shared similar characteristics which they identified as a:

  1. strong instructional core, rigorous processes and diversity around assessment of student performance
  2. robust curriculum framework and related standards identifying what students should be able to know and do
  3. focus on building teacher capacity

It was refreshing to hear the discussion go beyond the limited comparisons that are so often made in relation to PISA and the usual top four performing systems in the world. Schwartz and Tucker highlighted Ontario, Canada as one of the best examples of a sustainable approach to education policy around these three areas, particularly in their focus on building teacher capacity. They also found evidence within these successful systems of what Richard Elmore calls ‘reciprocity of accountability for capacity’.

‘Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.’ (Elmore, 2002).

For the last 20 years Australia has been responding to the changing world predominantly through the expansion and integration of technology into schooling  – the Digital Revolution. What the US experience shows us is that the real drivers of change are not tool driven, but rely on a deeper understanding of the nature of people and how they learn; a worldview that informs learning and teaching; a strong foundation of theory and evidence; and finally an investment in building human capital.

Rather than attacking the system (teachers, curriculum, and so on) or making changes at the fringes, we need to look within the profession to build the capacity of our teachers and leaders for successful education reform.

From I think to we know

John Hattie observed that we often think our profession is defined by autonomy or the ‘let me do it my way approach’.   The problem with autonomous practice is that it isn’t informed by data and evidence but by assumptions and ideology.   Without looking at student data, we aren’t looking at the reality.

I came across an article a few months back in The Atlantic on Andreas Schleicher, a German scientist working for the OECD.  According to the Atlantic, he is the ‘most influential education expert you’ve never heard of’.

Schleicher is a number-cruncher and one of the instigators behind the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). His slogan is ‘without data, you are just another person with an opinion.’

We don’t just want teachers with opinions, we want teachers who use data to frame the right questions.  Student data is not a judgment tool, it is a diagnostic tool in the same way doctors use blood tests.  Doctors can make assumptions about a patient’s health but unless the assumptions are tested, you cannot diagnose and treat.   It’s the same rigour that must be applied to the practice of teaching. The relational aspect of teaching will not be subverted by the use of data but enhanced by it.

As a profession, we need to move away from I think to we know. We know that using data to improve practice is fundamental to being a good school.  We know that one of the most powerful ways of bring about improvements is teachers learning about and reflecting on their practice.  Practice that is evidence based.

That’s the work of Helen Timperley and the inquiry model.  Teachers looking at the learning needs of students using the data/feedback and then identifying what they need to know in order to improve the learning outcomes. It underscores the links between teacher learning and student learning. This is what gives us the sharper focus.

A recent report by the OECD highlighted a lack of knowledge among teachers ‘about how to interpret information on student performance, saying they are not adequately prepared in analysing student test results and using the data to improve their teaching.’ (The Australian, 18 August).  Unfortunately, we get too many examples particularly in the media of the poor use of the ‘rank and order’ data that sheds little light on student learning or teacher practice.

Part of the reason why there is fear of evidence-based practice is that becomes an accountability measure for what teachers are or aren’t doing in classrooms.  When teachers set ambiguous targets,  you can’t measure progress so you can’t be held responsible for the learning outcomes.  When teachers set ambitious and measurable targets for students, they have something tangible to work towards.

If we are to get serious about student data then we need to make this the focus of teacher training and teacher learning.  When Schleicher analysed the PISA data he found a common thread across the best school systems: teacher training schools were made  rigorous and selective,  systems emphasised building the capacity of leaders and teachers above ‘reducing class sizes or equipping sports teams’ and once they had quality teachers and leaders in schools, they found ways of holding teachers accountable for the results while allowing creativity to flourish.

Four years ago,  McKinsey released How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, observing that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers (and leaders).  I would also argue that no teacher can exceed the quality of the data.

The bottom line of funding

The Gonski review panel released four research reports for public comment ahead of its final report into new schooling funding arrangements due by the end of the year.

Funding of every student is critical to Australia’s future.  We need to make sure we get this right.  Equity is at the centre of much of the deliberation as is the issue of student achievement.

It’s interesting to look at the PISA 2010 survey, which ranked Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Japan and New Zealand as the top performing nations.

According to the latest figures, OECD countries spend an average of USD 94, 589 per student from primary through to secondary.  It is interesting to note that both Australia and the United States spends more than the average yet under performs, while some other top performing nations spend well below the OECD average.

The claim that more funding is needed to deliver a world-class education is only true if it focuses on improving  teacher practice.  Funding acts to improve student performance only through its influence on the quality of teaching.
We know that quality teachers make the difference so if we are serious about equity, then our best resources are good teachers.   If we have to pay good teachers accordingly to work in chronically disadvantaged schools, then that’s an investment worth making.

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