The Leaning Tower of PISA

I doubt I am the first to come up with that title, but I liked it so much.

The results of the PISA test (Program for International Student Assessment) have made headlines once again, and the leader of the free world (America) is being publicly berated for its declining education system and for having to explain why it is ranked below places like Poland and Estonia. The Estonia Phenomenon?

So, I looked up the data and found a couple of things that I found noteworthy. First of all, it is well worth it to read a variety of analysis of the data, my favorite being Yong Zhao test scores vs entrepeneurship, who has done a nice job pointing out the negative correlation between high PISA scores and low GEM (Global Entrepeneurship Monitor) ratings. Hmm, maybe there is hope for the place that created I-Pads and Google.

For those of you not keeping track of the changes happening in education, there is a seismic shift taking place in the judgement around what is a good education. Strangely, these outcomes are not found on PISA. In fact, the schools with the high PISA rankings are lamenting the fact that they don’t have higher GEM scores, while the countries with the low PISA scores (America) want to be more like them!

China, for example, is not resting on its PISA laurels. They are in the process of building ‘international schools’ within their schools to enhance creativity, entrepeneurship, and critical thinking, all the things that the so called “West” seems to excel at but does not show up in PISA. So, while the West drives education into the ground with state mandated testing and mind-numbing data (read: The Massachusetts “Miracle”) to climb the PISA ladder, countries like China are already starting to run a different race. Who doesn’t want to claim the next Steve Jobs?

Here’s another astonishing fact indicates why this is not a race that can be won by a well-intentioned democracy:

“Each country is responsible for recruiting the sampled schools.”

Yes, that is an actual guideline for the PISA test. And you wonder why America is 26th? While America spends billions on mandates like No Child Left Behind and the requirements of special education laws, much of the world is not only leaving children behind and ignoring that special education exists, they are climbing the rankings of PISA.

My son goes to school in Switzerland. They are ranked #10. The newspapers are lauding this accomplishment as yet another reason why they are leaders in the world economy, etc. My son’s experience in school goes something like this:

1) At grade seven, students are separated into “college bound” and “vocational bound.”
2) The “college bound” students are put into large, drab classes that remind me of the duck and cover videos of 1952 in America, taught by teachers who use overhead projectors, and drilled and killed in the basics until their eyes bleed. My son’s school does not have wireless and his friends on the “vocational track” are never heard from again, let alone allowed to take a PISA test.

3) I visited his school for parent night. The building was a rectangle structure of drab, grey cement. Nothing hangs on the walls inside except a plastic world map featuring Yugoslavia and a divided Germany. (for those of you wondering why he is not at my school instead, it is because ours is only a secondary school and he’s not old enough).

This is what the U.S. is chasing?

If it wants to continue ‘killing and drilling,’ shave off the top five percent for score reporting, deny that special education exists, and give the false illusion that these rankings can determine what education should look like in the 21st century, then it can keep doing what it is doing to try to catch up.

Dan Pink famously said that we are exiting the information age and entering the dawn of the conceptual age. He’s right.

Steve Jobs said he was not interested in what people wanted. He was interested in telling them what they wanted. That didn’t work out so bad.

Is there a test for that?

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie (a specialist in families in global transition) in Croatia along with his daughter and son. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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