Education International
Education International

The fifth tower of PISA

published 8 December 2016 updated 8 December 2016
written by:

The publication of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA for short, is a triennial world event. Most education news is confined to specialist journals and blogs but when PISA results are announced they are headline news. Why? Because PISA is an evaluation of the quality of countries’ education systems. Its performance tables are scrutinized as closely as football league tables with the difference that it is Ministers who gnash their teeth or celebrate rather than football supporters.

In fact, it is the performance tables which are the most distracting and irrelevant despite the hype. The OECD itself admits that small differences in overall scores are statistically irrelevant. The reality is that most countries occupy a small number of groupings. There are those which are the top performers, then a large number just above and below the OECD average and then those deemed low performers. Take two examples of this statistical irrelevancy. New Zealand dropped scores in science-the main focus-and reading and mathematics, but, compared to PISA 2006-the last time when Science was the main focus- it rose in the tables. Again, Ireland scored 508 in 2006 and 503 in 2015 yet it was 20th in the table in 2006 and 19th in 2015!

Despite the tables, the most important thing about PISA are its policy conclusions. PISA is at its most useful when it triggers debate rather than prescription about what makes successful education systems. It is its policy conclusions which provide pointers for young people’s future education. At PISA 2015’s packed global launch in London on December 6th both Angel Gurria, OECD’s Secretary General, and Andreas Schleicher, its Education Director, highlighted many proposals which we would agree with but some which were confusing and contradictory.Positive policy recommendations were made on tackling disadvantage and promoting equity. Take children of immigrants and refugees for example. PISA recognises the importance of high quality education for all young children particularly for children of refugees and immigrants who make startling gains under the right policy conditions. It proposes additional language support for immigrant children and special training for teachers. Some countries are doing well with these groups as a result of sound investment, quality teaching practices and the influence of contextual factors such as language. Portugal for example does particularly well in terms of the ubiquity of outcomes around immigrants because nearly all of them speak Portuguese when they arrive from Africa or elsewhere.

PISA’s focus on supporting disadvantaged students is very welcome, particularly its proposal for targeting resources to schools with a concentration of high performing and disadvantaged students. PISA reports rising levels of truancy particularly among boys from poor backgrounds. This impact of social class on education has been stubborn in its dual influence, negative for the poor and positive for the rich. Effort is spent in the report on describing the sort of opportunities, science clubs, innovation fairs and competitions open to advantaged schools but not to those schools serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Where systems are more mixed and sufficient time is spent learning science it is possible to iron out some of the injustices of educational disadvantage.

A significant section of the report highlights the continuation of gender stereotypes in science education particularly by challenging stereotypes in science related occupations. OECD remains unequivocal in its opposition to student selection and repeating grades. And remarkably, for the first time, PISA says that schools in the public system outperform private schools when socio-economic background is factored in.

School safety and the importance of creating a positive classroom climate are continuing themes in PISA. Parents say a school’s students’ behaviour is the number one reason for them choosing a school, above academic performance or any other factors. It would appear that problem behaviour is going through an upward cycle with pupil behavior declining between 2012 and 2015. This has been acknowledged for some time by OECD with its renewed focus on wellbeing. OECD’s work on the competencies students need by 2030 is more substantively focused in this area and could make a positive difference.

Despite the fact that PISA 2015 was the first time a contextual teacher questionnaire had been included, a coherent narrative from teachers is missing. Instead there is an over emphasis on leaders’ voices. When asked about this, OECD informed us that the analysis of the teacher survey has not been completed yet. As a result, it contains unchallenged comments by leaders saying that truancy and staff resisting change are the biggest blocks to student learning with students’ use of alcohol, drugs and bullying being the least significant. If those comments had been triangulated against teacher data a completely different picture could have emerged.

Gender threw up some other conundrums. Top performing girls are still being channeled into the health sciences and away from pure science and engineering. Boys still get the very highest scores, with this trend varying across countries (the results from Asian countries show this trend at its sharpest), but they also get the very lowest. This dual result needs further analysis, beyond glib policy responses that more male role models are needed and poor boys need more computers. We also need to ask why girls prefer health science over pure science.

The Global Launch repeated two OECD ‘idee fixes’ which remain a continuing source of irritation. The first is on school funding where OECD continues to assert that there is no relationship between spending per student and PISA outcomes despite the fact that cash injections in low spending countries do have a significant impact on student achievement. When it was pointed out in the launch that this contradicted OECD’s own argument that a high common minimum percentage of GDPs had to be devoted to education spending, Gurria hurriedly asserted OECD had said consistently that education should be protected from ‘fiscal consolidation.’ The second is class size where, again OECD continue to argue that larger classes would allow teachers more time to prepare their work and time for reflection; this is despite PISA’s finding that students report that smaller classes give teachers greater flexibility to change the structure of lessons if students are having difficulty and enables them to give greater attention to individual needs.

PISA, as always, raises more questions than it answers. We do not agree with everything in the report, but much of it is sensible policy advice. We can make up our own minds from the data. PISA is as much the property of teachers and their unions as it is governments’. Coupled with their knowledge about how schools really work, teachers armed with macro data and using their own analyses - now there’s a force for positive change in education that would really have to be heeded!