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Gordon Campbell on New Zealand’s PISA education rankings

Gordon Campbell on New Zealand’s PISA education rankings

by Gordon Campbell

Perhaps a bit more scepticism about the PISA results could be healthy. Surely, shouldn’t we should feel misgivings about a test that claims to measure the relative competence of reading writing and maths skills by students within the education systems of the countries surveyed, but which ends up with something called “Shanghai-China” as its top performer? Doesn’t that suggest that the tests in question allow some “countries” to put up only their best performers from their best performing regions? “Macau-China” and “Hong Kong” also qualify as separate countries in a list that has no African countries - apart from Tunisia (!) - no Caribbean countries, and no results at all from India. Regardless, the local reportage on the results of the OECD’s latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has almost uniformly treated PISA as providing a reliable, accurate measure of student performance internationally. Not only as a snapshot of the current education system, but of its comparative performance through time. That’s some great test! Especially when you keep in mind that the tests purport to standardise the outcomes across vastly different education systems and languages. Surprisingly, some languages appear to be more PISA-friendly than others.

In the 2013 rankings, New Zealand slipped from seventh to 13th in reading, seventh to 18th in science and from 13th to 23rd in maths. Some academic observers and statisticians query the reliability of the PISA statistical methodology here and here. The PISA reply to some of that criticism is here. Imperfect though they may be, the PISA results do carry weight in the educational market. As such, the latest PISA results hardly enhance the attractiveness of New Zealand as an educational destination, or make it any easier for providers to achieve the ambitious earnings targets - $5 billion by 2025 - that the government has set for the sector.

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With that in mind, any search for explanations for New Zealand’s slippage should not be confined solely to what is happening in the classroom. Socio-economic inequalities in the wider society and their impact on the home environment are also crucial elements in educational outcomes, although the government response to the PISA results is almost certain to ignore them. Yet John Bangs, chair of the OECD trade union advisory committee’s education working group, has pointed to the role of socio-economic factors in the rankings, especially in evaluating performance over time: “My belief is that Finland and Sweden [both of which also slipped in the 2013 rankings] are suffering from the strains of declining economies and the social pressures this causes.” Moreover, the slippage by Sweden in the 2013 PISA rankings should be particularly bad news for the Key government’s experiment with school choice. “In Sweden’s case,” Bangs added, the socio-economic strains “[have been] compounded by a disastrous experiment with the private sector and free schools."

Doubts about Sweden experiment with private sector schools have existed for several years now although this hasn’t stopped them from being adopted as a model by the UK for the same ideological reasons (to do with “choice”) that the Key government has been promoting them here. Overseas, the latest PISA results are being hailed as the final nail into the coffin of the state funded charter schools/private sector provision experiment. This negative relationship between school choice and reading, science and maths outcomes was stressed by Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy education director as he unveiled the 2013 PISA results yesterday:

“My organisation [the OECD] is very strong on choice, enabling citizens to make choices, and you would expect that systems with greater choice would come out better,” he said. “You expect competition to raise performance of the high performers and with low performers put them out of the market. But in fact you don’t see that correlation… Competition alone is not a predictor for better outcomes. “The UK is a good example – it has a highly competitive school system but it is still only an average performer.” His comments could be seen as a blow for Michael Gove, England’s education secretary, who has placed great importance on the findings of Pisa and has also promoted increased school choice as a key way of raising education standards. This has been done in England through more academies and the introduction of state-funded free schools, partly inspired by charter schools in the US....”Our data doesn’t show much of a performance difference between public and charter and private schools once you account for social background,” he said.

So much for charter schools, and the money and time being wasted on them. On other issues, PISA cautions against using its results as an absolute measure of educational system performance. Both Finland and Estonia may have slipped in the absolute rankings, but both countries were praised by PISA bureaucrats, for achieving low variations between student scores, and for “proving that high performance is possible for all”.

Unfortunately, New Zealand is moving in the opposite direction. As one might expect given the rise in income inequality in this country, the PISA results show an increased gap in outcomes between our best performing and our worst performing students. Teachers cannot (or at least should not) be held responsible for this situation. The OECD’s PISA bureaucrats are adamant that teachers are not to blame, and they point out the road that needs to be taken to improve student outcomes. Evidently, it is not by driving down teacher training and standards of entry in the name of fostering “choice” in education:

[Countries] can also learn from high-performing education systems how to transform the work organisation in their schools by replacing administrative forms of management with professional norms that provide the status and the high-quality training, responsibility and collaborative work that go with professional work...The alternative is clear: a downward spiral - from lowered standards for entry, leading to lowered confidence in the profession, resulting, in turn, in more prescriptive teaching and thus less personalisation in learning experiences –that will risk driving the most talented teachers out of the profession, that will then lower the skills of the teacher population."

In sum - and despite any imperfections in their methodology - the PISA results have a lot more to say about this country than the mere "horse race” results - New Zealand down, Asian countries up - would indicate.


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