Reading the PISA Tea Leaves: Who Is Responsible for Finland’s Decline and the Asian Magic
“Finland Fell from the Tip of PISA,” says the headline of a story in the largest subscription newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in Finland, according to Google Translate (I think it should be
Finland Falls from the Top of PISA). I don’t know Finnish but thanks to Google Translate, I was able to understand most of the story. The gist is that Finland has fallen from the top in the current round of PISA.
This is big news, with significant implications not only for the Finns but also for the rest of the world that has been looking at Finland as the model education system since 2001 when Finland was number one in the first round of PISA. Although results of the 2012 PISA won’t be officially unveiled until 10am GMT, December 3rd. the leaked story, published on November 30th, has already sent the Finns and others to speculate the causes of Finland’s decline. “The reasons are seen in the teachers’ continuing education in poor and outdated teaching methods and technology,” writes the Helsingin Sanomat story (courtesy of Google Translate).
While the Finns are right to be concerned about their education, it would be a huge mistake to believe that their education has gotten worse. Finland’s slip in the PISA ranking has little to do with what Finland has or has not done. It has been pushed down by others. In other words, Finland’s education quality as measured by the PISA may have not changed at all and remains strong, but the introduction of other education systems that are even better at taking tests has made Finland appear worse than it really is. In 2000 and 2003 when Finland was number one, only two East Asian education systems were included: Korea and Japan. In 2009, there were seven from Eastern Asia: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Macao. Six out of the seven ranked top 10 in math, five in science and five in reading and Shanghai took number away from Finland. I have not seen the 2012 results yet and will miss the big moment on my way back to the U.S. from Hong Kong, but I can guess, as the Helsingin Sanomat already suggested, the East Asian education systems did very well again, squeezing further Finland down the league table.
An even bigger mistake is to assume that the Asian systems have made significant improvement and surpassed Finland. The Asian systems have always done extremely well in international tests, especially in math. The top scoring education systems in another major international assessment, the TIMSS, have always been Eastern Asian since 1995: Singapore, S. Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan. Mainland China has yet to participate in TIMSS.
The 2009 PISA results have already begun to shift the world’s attention away from Finland to Shanghai. I fear that the 2012 PISA will complete that shift and make Shanghai and other East Asian education systems THE model of education because the magic potion that East Asian success in international tests is very poisonous.
The recipe for the East Asian success is actually not that magical. It includes all the elements that have been identified as the symptoms of the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) by the great Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg: Competition, Standardization, Frequent Testing, and Privatization. In East Asian high PISA performing systems, these ingredients are more effectively combined and carried out to an extreme to result in entire societies devoted to ensure that their youngsters become excellent test takers.
While the East Asian systems may enjoy being at the top of international tests, they are not happy at all with the outcomes of their education. They have recognized the damages of their education for a long time and have taken actions to reform their systems. Recently, the Chinese government again issued orders to lesson student academic burden by reducing standardized tests and written homework in primary schools. The Singaporeans have been working reforming its curriculum and examination systems. The Koreans are working on implementing a “free semester” for the secondary students. Eastern Asian parents are willing and working hard to spend their life’s savings finding spots outside these “best” education systems. Thus international schools, schools that follow the less successful Western education model, have been in high demand and continue to grow in East Asia. Tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean parents send their children to study in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. It is no exaggeration to say that that the majority of the parents in China would send their children to an American school instead of keeping them in the “best performing” Chinese system, if they had the choice.
The East Asian education systems may have a lot to offer to those who want a compliant and homogenous test takers. For those who are looking for true high quality education, Finland would still be a better place. But for an education that can truly cultivate creative, entrepreneurial and globally competent citizens needed in the 21st century, you will have to invent it. Global benchmarking can only give you the best of the past. For the best of the future, you will have do the invention yourself.
(May append later. Gotta run to the airport)