PISA’s prom­ise

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - By An­gel Gur­ria

By as­sess­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties and knowl­edge of stu­dents in the high­est-per­form­ing and most rapidly im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, the OECD’s Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment pro­vides valu­able op­tions for re­form and in­for­ma­tion on how to achieve it. PISA brings to­gether pol­i­cy­mak­ers, ed­u­ca­tors, and re­searchers from around the world to dis­cuss what knowl­edge stu­dents need to be­come suc­cess­ful and re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zens in to­day’s world, and how to de­velop more ef­fec­tive, in­clu­sive ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems.

Some claim that the PISA re­sults are based on too wide a range of fac­tors to be rel­e­vant, while oth­ers point out the chal­lenges in­her­ent in test­ing stu­dents in var­i­ous lan­guages and with dif­fer­ent cul­tural back­grounds. Of course, com­par­ing ed­u­ca­tion across coun­tries is not easy, but PISA re­mains the most use­ful tool yet de­vel­oped for pol­i­cy­mak­ers at­tempt­ing to im­prove their na­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems.

Be­fore PISA, many gov­ern­ments claimed that they over­saw the world’s most suc­cess­ful ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, and in­sisted that they had al­ready taken the steps needed to ad­dress any short­com­ings. By ex­pos­ing weak­nesses in a par­tic­u­lar coun­try’s sys­tem, PISA as­sess­ments help to en­sure that pol­i­cy­mak­ers recog­nise – and, it is hoped, ad­dress – re­main­ing de­fi­cien­cies.

The sense of ac­count­abil­ity that PISA fosters among gov­ern­ments and ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ters has helped to spur them into ac­tion. They in­creas­ingly turn to one another to learn how to ap­ply in­no­va­tions in cur­ric­ula, ped­a­gogy, and dig­i­tal re­sources; how to of­fer per­son­alised learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that max­i­mize ev­ery stu­dent’s chances of suc­cess; and how to cope with di­ver­sity in the class­room.

The OECD es­tab­lished PISA as a global as­sess­ment, be­cause in to­day’s glob­alised world stu­dents must be able to col­lab­o­rate with peo­ple from di­verse back­grounds and ap­pre­ci­ate dif­fer­ent ideas, per­spec­tives, and val­ues. To give stu­dents the best pos­si­ble chance to suc­ceed, ed­u­ca­tion must pre­pare them to han­dle is­sues that tran­scend na­tional bound­aries.

But PISA’s most im­por­tant out­comes lie at the na­tional level, be­cause it in­spires in­no­va­tion and broad­ens ed­u­ca­tional per­spec­tives within coun­tries. Ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems as di­verse as those in Fin­land, Ja­pan, China, and Canada – which sel­dom reg­is­tered on pol­i­cy­mak­ers’ radars be­fore – have be­come global ref­er­ence points for ex­cel­lence in ed­u­ca­tion, help­ing other coun­tries to de­sign ef­fec­tive re­forms.

When Brazil emerged as the low­est-per­form­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in the first PISA as­sess­ment, re­leased in 2000, many peo­ple rightly ques­tioned the fair­ness of com­par­ing an emerg­ing econ­omy to ad­vanced coun­tries like Fin­land and Ja­pan. But Brazil rose to the chal­lenge, mak­ing mas­sive in­vest­ments in im­prov­ing the qual­ity of teach­ing. The coun­try now boasts one of the world’s most rapidly im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems.

Ger­many also fea­tured in PISA 2000, record­ing be­lowa­v­er­age per­for­mance and large so­cial in­equal­i­ties in ed­u­ca­tion – an out­come that stunned Ger­mans and ini­ti­ated a month­s­long pub­lic de­bate. Spurred into ac­tion, the govern­ment launched ini­tia­tives to sup­port dis­ad­van­taged and im­mi­grant stu­dents, and made the no­tion of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion a driv­ing force in Ger­man ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy. To­day, PISA re­ports con­firm that the qual­ity and fair­ness of Ger­many’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem have im­proved con­sid­er­ably.

Even in the world’s best-per­form­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, PISA helps to pin­point ar­eas for im­prove­ment. For ex­am­ple, PISA as­sess­ments have re­vealed that, while Ja­panese stu­dents excel at re­pro­duc­ing what they have learned, they of­ten strug­gle when asked to ex­trap­o­late from that knowl­edge and ap­ply it cre­atively. The ef­fort that this has in­spired to cre­ate more in­no­va­tive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments was ap­par­ent last April, dur­ing a visit to the Tohoku schools de­stroyed by the 2011 tsunami.

This ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers yet another les­son: even in cases where so­cial and cul­tural fac­tors seem to be the main force shap­ing a coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion style, im­prove­ments are pos­si­ble. Coun­tries like Ja­pan do not have to change their cul­tures to ad­dress their ed­u­ca­tional short­com­ings; they sim­ply have to ad­just their poli­cies and prac­tices.

Cre­at­ing a global plat­form for col­lab­o­ra­tion in ed­u­ca­tion re­search and in­no­va­tion has been the PISA ini­tia­tive’s as­pi­ra­tion from its con­cep­tion in the late 1990s. Since then, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, re­searchers, and ex­perts have built the world’s largest pro­fes­sional net­work ded­i­cated to the devel­op­ment of ro­bust, re­li­able, and in­ter­na­tion­ally com­pa­ra­ble in­for­ma­tion on stu­dent learn­ing out­comes.

At the same time, PISA mea­sures stu­dents’ so­cial and emo­tional skills and at­ti­tudes to­ward learn­ing, as well as ed­u­ca­tional eq­uity and parental sup­port – all of which pro­vides in­dis­pens­able con­text for un­der­stand­ing scores on in­ter­na­tional as­sess­ments.

Of course, as­sess­ments do not cover ev­ery im­por­tant skill or at­ti­tude. But there is con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that the knowl­edge and skills that the PISA sys­tem as­sesses are es­sen­tial to stu­dents’ fu­ture suc­cess, and the OECD works con­tin­u­ously to broaden the range of cog­ni­tive and so­cial skills that PISA mea­sures. PISA has al­ready prompted im­por­tant ad­vances in ed­u­ca­tion world­wide. The OECD will con­tinue to work with the 80 par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries to de­velop the pro­gramme fur­ther, so that it can con­tinue to help pol­i­cy­mak­ers and ed­u­ca­tors de­sign and im­ple­ment bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies – and give their cit­i­zens ac­cess to the tools that they need to build bet­ter lives.

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