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Sun Dec 8, 2013, 08:39 PM

The PISA 2012 scores show the failure of 'market based' education reform

When PISA results were first presented 12 years ago, the participating countries were excited to see how their school systems perform compared to one another. Now the launch of the fifth PISA results is accompanied by more criticism than before due to the issues with cross-country comparisons and the dominant role that PISA plays in determining priorities for national education policies. Whatever its limitations are, the data from more than half a million 15-year-olds around the world is now here, and we should try to make the best out of them.

An appropriate use of PISA data is not to create global league tables that praise or shame countries for their performances in standardized mathematics, reading literacy and science tests. But this is still the most common way to report PISA results. In Finland, media bluntly concluded that Finnish school system has collapsed pointing to country's drop from 6th best in the world in mathematics in 2009 to 12th three years later. Swedish newsagents went even further stating that Sweden's all-time-low PISA scores are a "national disaster" that puts the future of the nation at risk. It was a similar story of concern in Canada. In the US, authorities were concerned about widening learning gap between American and Asian youth and how it is harmful to America's economic competitiveness. Many others seem to draw their conclusions of PISA by a glance at the league tables.

Another handicap of using PISA to inform national policies is to admire the highest scoring school systems and thereby fail to see the common patterns from the data. PISA consumers should note that not every high-scoring school system is successful. A school system is "successful" if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students' socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

My personal takeaway from the PISA 2012 study is how it proves that fashionable Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is built on wrong premises. GERM, that emerged from England's Education Reform Act 1988 and was further accelerated by the No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top reforms in the US, assumes that market mechanisms are the best vehicles for whole system improvements. GERM has acted like a virus that "infects" education systems as it travels around the world. The infection can be diagnosed by checking the state of the following five symptoms.


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