How Does PISA Put the World at Risk (Part 2): Glorifying Educational Authoritarianism
authoritarian: of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
authoritarianism: principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action (Encyclopedia Britannica)
PISA’s glorification of educational authoritarianism goes beyond its romanticization of the misery children suffer in authoritarian education systems as discussed in my last post. Because some authoritarian education systems seem to generate better PISA rankings, it has been concluded that educational authoritarianism, the systemic arrangements designed to enforce government-prescribed, uniform standards upon all children, should be emulated by the rest of the world. “High-performing school systems also share clear and ambitious standards across the board. Everyone knows what is required to get a given qualification,” writes Andreas Schleicher, the PISA chief. “This remains one of the most powerful system-level predictors in PISA.”
In Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems, Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a devout PISA believer, explains what PISA high-performing countries do and America does not do: “Virtually all high performing countries have a system of gateways marking the key transition point from basic education to job training to the work force… The national examinations at the end of the upper-secondary school are generally—but not always—the same examinations that universities in that country use for admissions.” The advantages of such a system, Tucker notes, are numerous:
In countries with gateway exam systems of this sort, every student has a very strong incentive to take tough courses and to work hard in school. A student who does not do that will not earn the credentials needed to achieve her dream, whether that dream is becoming a brain surgeon or an auto mechanic. Because the exams are scored externally, the student knows that the only way to move on is to meet the standard. Because they are national or provincial standards, the exams cannot be gamed. Because the exams are of a very high quality, they cannot be “test prepped”; the only way to succeed on them is to actually master the material. And because the right parties were involved in creating the exams, students know that the credentials they earn will be honored; when their high school say they are “college and career ready,” colleges and employees will agree. 
But Tucker is wrong on all counts, at least in the case of China. Students may work hard, but they do not necessarily take tough courses. They take courses that prepare them for the exams or courses that only matter for the exams. Students do not move on to meet a high standard, but to prepare for the exams. The exams can be gamed, and have often been. Teachers guess possible items, companies sell answers and wireless cheating devices to students, and students engage in all sorts of elaborate cheating. In 2013, a riot broke because a group of students in the Hubei Province were stopped from executing the cheating scheme their parents purchased to ease their college entrance exam. “An angry mob of more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent its rage, smashing cars and chanting: ‘We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat,’” read the story in the U.K.-based newspaper The Telegraph.
Tucker’s assertion, that “because the exams are of very high quality, they cannot be ‘test prepped,’” is completely untrue. Chinese schools exist to test prep. Every class, every teacher, every school is about preparing for the exams. In most schools, the last year of high school is reserved exclusively for test preparation. No new content is taught. All students do, the entire year, is take practice tests and learn test-taking skills. Good schools often help the students exhaust all possible ways specific content might show up in an exam. Schools that have earned a reputation for preparing students for college exams have published their practice test papers and made a fortune. A large proportion of publications for children in China are practice test papers.
Even if Tucker were right, the system he glorifies hinders the development of creative and entrepreneurial talents in a number of ways. First, national standards and national curriculum—enforced by high stakes testing—can at best teach students what is prescribed by the curriculum and expected by the standards. This system fails to expose students to content and skills in other areas. As a result, students talented in other areas never have the opportunity to discover those talents. Students with broader interests are discouraged, not rewarded. The system results in a population with similar skills in a narrow spectrum of talents. But especially in today’s society, innovation and creativity are needed in many areas, some as yet undiscovered. Innovation and creativity come from cross-fertilization across different disciplines. A narrow educational experience hardly provides children opportunities to examine an issue from multiple disciplines.
Second, examinations such as the PISA assess cognitive skills. But creativity and entrepreneurship have a lot more to do with non-cognitive skills. Confidence, resilience, grit, mindset, personality traits, social skills, and motivation have been found to be at least as important as cognitive skills in the workplace  . The Chinese educational system motivates students to spend all their time preparing for the examinations and gives them almost no time to cultivate non-cognitive skills and traits. Meanwhile, the constant ranking and sorting continually put students in stressful situations that make them less confident.
Third, examinations reward one’s abilities to find the correct answers and give those answers in expected ways. To obtain high scores, students need to learn to guess what the examiner wants and provide answers that will please the examiner. This finding and delivering of predetermined answers is antithetical to creativity, which requires the ability to come up with new solutions and pose questions that have never been asked.
Chinese students are extremely good at well-defined problems. That is, as long as they know what they need to do to meet the expectations, and they have examples to follow, they do great. But in less defined situations, without routines and formulas to fall back on, they have great difficulty. In other words, they are good at solving existing problems in predictable ways, but not at coming up with radical new solutions or inventing new problems to solve.
Fourth, a gateway system such as China’s educational system replaces students’ intrinsic motivation with extrinsic, utilitarian motivation. Instead of caring about what they can learn, they care about what they can get by demonstrating to the authority that they have learned what the authority wants them to learn. Getting the credential is more important than actually learning—which explains why cheating on exams is rampant. Moreover, it is possible to impose basic skills and knowledge on students without them being the least bit interested or passionate about the subject. Thus, the Chinese system can successfully impose on students the skills and knowledge necessary for performing well on tests such as the PISA, which measures skills and content at the basic level. But no one can force those students to be creative or seek greatness if they have neither the interest nor the passion to do so.
In a nutshell, the Chinese education, a perfect incarnation of educational authoritarianism, is a powerful way to homogenize individuals by discouraging any pursuit that does not serve the emperor or government. This is one of the reasons China didn’t have the industrialists, naturalists, technologists, inventors, and entrepreneurs it needed to start an industrial revolution. These professions were all disgraceful, compared to the scholar-official. Education, in the traditional Chinese perspective, should not be applied to help cultivate these less honorable professions. Education in China is, in essence, a process through which those willing to comply are homogenized, and those unwilling or unable to comply—but quite possibly talented or interested in other, non-scholarly pursuits—are eliminated.
1. Tucker, M., ed. Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. 2011, Harvard Education Press: Boston.
2. Zhao, Y., World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. 2012, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
3. Levin, H.M., More Than Just Test Scores. Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, 2012. 42(3): p. 269-284.
4. Brunello, G. and M. Schlotter, The Effect of Non Cognitive Skills and Personality Traits on Labour Market Outcomes. 2010, European Expert Network on Economics of Education (EENEE): Munich.