PISA achieve­ments are just a hol­low tri­umph

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - BER­LIN FANG The au­thor is a US-based in­struc­tional de­signer, literary trans­la­tor and colum­nist writ­ing on cross­cul­tural is­sues.

The re­lease of the 2012 re­sults for the Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment shows that stu­dents from Shang­hai scored the high­est in math, read­ing and sci­ence. When CNN first re­leased the re­sults, many peo­ple in the United States re­acted with frus­tra­tion and con­cern at the US’ low rank­ing. Arne Dun­can, the US sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion, even said that the re­sults show a “pic­ture of ed­u­ca­tional stag­na­tion”.

As a city, Shang­hai de­serves some praise for the re­sults. How­ever, ed­u­ca­tion is as com­plex as hu­man na­ture it­self. We should be cau­tious about es­tab­lish­ing causal re­la­tion­ships with­out rig­or­ous re­search, and the re­port­ing on PISA as­sess­ments was the epit­ome of bad re­search. The sam­pling, for in­stance, de­fies rules that en­try-level re­searchers would blush to vi­o­late. Why is Shang­hai, an out­lier in China in terms of ed­u­ca­tional re­sources, se­lected to rep­re­sent China? Com­par­ing a city with other coun­tries is pre­pos­ter­ous. It does not flat­ter most Chi­nese to see the city out­per­form the rest of the world. Some may even sug­gest there should be equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tional re­sources.

The con­clu­sions peo­ple draw from the PISA re­sults are only as valid as the de­sign of the PISA project. The CNN re­port on the as­sess­ment cites re­spect for teach­ers as one of the suc­cess fac­tors of Shang­hai, which is sim­ply the con­fir­ma­tion of a mis­con­cep­tion. Tra­di­tional Chi­nese val­ues are un­der­go­ing tremen­dous changes with the shifts in de­mo­graph­ics. Most Shang­hai stu­dents are sin­gle chil­dren and they have a strong sense of per­sonal rights and priv­i­leges. They are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly as­sertive or even ag­gres­sive, to the ex­tent that teach­ers feel they get no re­spect and are be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned. A Chi­nese best-seller in 2012, The Worker­bees: A Record of Young Col­lege Teach­ers, por­trays the mis­ery they feel.

Com­ment­ing on the PISA re­sults, David Stout of Time Mag­a­zine claims that China is “cheat­ing the world stu­dent rank­ings sys­tem”. Some of my US friends have a sim­i­lar im­pres­sion. But I tend to think that ed­u­ca­tion alarmists in the US just want to use such as­sess­ments, de­void of any prov­able va­lid­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity, to jolt US ed­u­ca­tion out of its com­pla­cency.

Chi­nese peo­ple rarely have any il­lu­sions about the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion in China, and the PISA re­sults are of­ten dis­missed or laughed at. Crit­ics of the ex­ist­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem have be­come in­creas­ingly vo­cal in call­ing at­ten­tion to the en­trenched prob­lems, such as the lack of ci­ti­zen­ship and life skills train­ing, the em­pha­sis on rote learn­ing, and the long hours stu­dents spend study­ing com­pared to their in­ter­na­tional peers. Few peo­ple bask in the glory of Shang­hai’s PISA per­for­mance.

Richer Chi­nese, from Shang­hai es­pe­cially, like to send their chil­dren to the US or Europe to study. It would be in­ter­est­ing if th­ese chil­dren came to Amer­ica or Europe and found the trend was for Chi­nese-style learn­ing.

When it comes to com­par­isons of na­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems and achieve­ments, the PISA re­sults are largely use­less, if not en­tirely mis­lead­ing. Learn­ing from other coun­tries is use­ful only when it is pos­si­ble to un­mis­tak­ably iden­tify some trans­fer­able prac­tices that have proven to work. There may be mul­ti­ple ed­u­ca­tional paths to “suc­cess”, and we would do bet­ter to reach some kind of agree­ment on what con­sti­tutes suc­cess.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.