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ThinkEd: The Learning Power of Pisa

Stuart Middleton
10 January 2011

In the hurley-burley of the run down to the end of the year, the 2010 PISA results were released in early December. The press coverage was generally polite and a couple of cheer-leaders emerged one of whom likened the achievement of New Zealand’s 15-year olds to the performance of the All Whites in the World Cup, the Silver Ferns defeat of Australia in the Commonwealth Games and the beat-all-before-them season of the All Blacks.

Certainly the performance of our students is commendable and the top students are about as good as it gets in the world. We have long known this and I have drawn attention to it frequently. But while uncritically accepting the results might have a place in the increasingly tabloid press in New Zealand, it behoves educators to take a more balanced stance.

Three years ago when the 2007 PIS results came out I also argued in Education Review (21 December 2007, p.16) that a more muted response was appropriate largely then on the grounds that while there was good news for 15 year olds the picture was less a cause for celebration for 19 year olds.

First, I must say that the PISA reports are not serving us well in reporting on ethnic groups which are submerged into an analysis based on socio-economic categories. We simply have to accept assurances that the ethnic groups were appropriately represented in the country samples and in New Zealand that would for 15 year olds in schools be something like Pakeha / European 56%, Maori 22%, Pacific Islands 9%, and Asian 9%. The New Zealand Ministry of Education is to be commended for reporting in presentations on the performance of our key ethnic groups.

But looking at the socio-economic status analysis of PISA, there is clearly a big wake-up call in the results. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged groups across the OECD countries is what they describe as “about one year’s worth of education”. New Zealand’s gap between these groups is at least 31% greater. And we know that this gap splits clearly along racial lines.

The impact of this is made most clear if for a moment we pretend that our student body is comprised only of Pakeha / New Zealand students. If this were so we would be second only to China in Reading and Science and right up there in the top six for Science. Our ability to get Maori and Pasifika 15 year olds to the same level is nothing like this. Were the student body to be comprised only of Maori and/or Pasifika students we would be firmly in the group of countries ranked at the bottom in the OECD.

Given the demographics as they are now and especially taking note of the trends in the relative growth of the different groups, PISA sounds a serious warning. It is a warning that was sounded by Dame Anne Salmond at the Knowledge Conferences of the early part of the last decade, a warning that we are paying a high price for the “dead weight of educational under-achievement”. It seems not to have been heeded and ten years later we get the same warning.

There has been some discussion this time around about the entry of China into the PISA study and the point has been fairly made that their education is so dissimilar that comparisons and at best misleading and perhaps even invidious. There is some truth in this but we seem always to move to the defensive default.

The study showed for instance that more than 25% of the Shanghai sample cooperate at a high theoretical level in mathematics, “applying insight and understanding” and developing “new approaches and strategies when addressing novel situations.” This compares to 3% who can do this across the OECD. Yes, there are differences between the countries’ education systems, their access to schooling and so on, but we should ask why these results are happening and what are they doing that we are not. We should also note that with Pakeha New Zealand 15 year old students we are giving the Chinese a good run for their money.

The study showed that in Canada, Finland, Japan and Korea, all students perform well “regardless of the school they attended.” A report from Britain notes that in the UK, the gap is bigger than in any major country except Brazil while in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland there is virtually no gap while in Japan and Italy the independent / private schools are worse. What is the situation in New Zealand and why?

If New Zealand can compete with the entire PISA world for some students then why can it not provide a quality education characterised by high attainment for all? This is a simple question that invites complex answers.

It is not good enough for us to simply blame “such social problems as poverty, dysfunctional families and home language traditions” as one commentator did. Education simply has to tackle these issues and back itself to win. It should also recognise that it is a key mechanism in the commitment to ameliorate those very same issues. This was the commitment made many times to the people of New Zealand. Are we delivering?

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