Pasi Sahlberg Blog

Finnish education reform

Is PISA dimming the Northern Lights?

The world has now had a week to recover from the hangover caused by the release of fifth OECD PISA results. All Asian countries, including newcomer Vietnam, have celebrated success of their education reforms, especially improved test scores in mathematics, reading and science. Politicians and pundits in Estonia, Poland, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland had also reasons to toast their advanced ranks in global PISA league tables.

Then there were countries that were upset. Sustained frustration for stagnated educational performance was notable in the United States, England and the rest of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. One common aspect of the latest PISA study was that the Nordic countries are drifting away from the league of successful education systems in the OECD. Sweden together with its Nordic allies had no reason to celebrate after hearing the PISA results. If there was any reason to celebrate in the Nordic countries after 2013 PISA, it was to forget the not-so-good news.

International media hysteria has revealed that Asian kids are getting smarter while our youngsters are lazier and dumber than before. Teachers, schools and parents have also been finger-pointed as being partly guilty for poor educational performance. In North America inability of school systems to compete with Shanghai and Singapore was seen putting nations’ economic competitiveness and future prosperity at risk. Finnish media also had a fairly straightforward way of reporting the PISA results: the Finnish school system has collapsed as shown by how many steps the Finns have lost in the mathematics league ladder since the previous PISA study in 2009.

Before concluding what we here in Northern Europe should do, it is necessary to make a couple of remarks about the nature of PISA.

First, because PISA is a standardized test, its data are analyzed so that the average performance score each year in mathematics, science and reading literacy is about 500 with a standard deviation of 100. The statistical nature of PISA test means, in practice, that if your 15-year-olds in Sweden maintain their level of knowledge and skills in these subjects compared to the past but others improve their learning (or teachers’ and students’ skills of PISA-type test-taking), your position in rankings will, as a result, decline. In the 2012 PISA study, the Asian countries did better than before, which made it harder for the others to look better compared to the average. In this way, PISA is like a marathon run: Your time of two hours and 20 minutes might make you one of the fastest five today, but you would drop from the top ten five years from now.

Second, it is always a worth remembering the limitations of PISA and other international tests. Commentators of PISA, who are mostly internationally recognized scholars, have insisted that politicians and the public at large (including media) must understand better what PISA can and cannot do.

Professor David Spieghalter of the University of Cambridge said in The Guardian: “If Pisa measures anything, it is the ability to do Pisa tests. Aligning policy along a single performance indicator can be damaging. We need to look at the whole picture.” Professor Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon commented in his website blog that “while the East Asian systems may enjoy being at the top of international tests, they are not happy at all with the outcomes of their education. They have recognized the damages of their education for a long time and have taken actions to reform their systems.” Finally, Howard Gardner of Harvard University wrote in his commentary titled “The Ministers’ Misconception” in the Daily Riff following the 2009 PISA results that “I am constantly surprised at the persistence, in ministerial talk and writing, of allegiance to the ‘transmission theory’ of education … and the notion that the best questions have a single correct answer and a resulting suspicion of multiple plausible answers, productive errors and creative leaps.”  These observations are good reminders that PISA is a good a servant but a bad master.  Even if it is at the moment the best international assessment to compare school systems, it nevertheless measures the best of the past.

So, what is the way forward for Sweden and the other Nordic school systems after the 2012 PISA results? Most importantly, each of us should avoid hasty decisions and take a good breath of fresh air first. It is, of course, wise to accept the fact that our school systems have not been able to change when the world around them has changed. I have three suggestions where the attention now should be put.

First, Nordic school systems should not deviate from their main course of having strong public education systems that provide equal opportunities for our children. Schools should work harder to help all young people to discover their talent and find their passion, whatever they are. This works best in diverse and authentic social environments rather than grouping children based on their abilities or family backgrounds. PISA shows that segregation of children by choice of private schools is not a good idea if you are concerned for everybody’s children. Sweden has more to do to fix this than the other Nordic countries.

Second, not so long ago the Nordic education systems were the most equitable education systems in the world.  Not any more. Canada, Japan, Estonia and Korea have passed us in equity, which refers to how much students’ social-economic status explains what they learn in school. The central PISA finding is that high average performance and equity are not mutually exclusive. In other words, all successful education systems have greater equity. We must therefore put investing more in equity in our school systems as a top priority, not further focus on school choice, competition or rewards and punishments.

Finally, now is a good time for closer Nordic cooperation in renewing our schools. The best solution to build high-performing education systems can be found in our schools. Ironically, the Asians regard Nordic schools that embrace wellbeing, happiness, democracy, individualism and creativity as their role models.

All Nordic countries confront the one and the same challenge: What does the new School 3.0 look like? As I see it, it’s a place where all students build a strong foundation of basics in life and then are guided to find their talents and passion. It requires reconsidering the role of traditional instruction, how digital learning tools are utilized in teaching and learning, and how students socially relate to one another and the world, including its ecosystem. Whether we going to do this or not depends on how we want to prepare our younger generation for a  complex and unpredictable world. Another question is, do we want to lead the way with a new Nordic model of schooling, or are we going to try to catch up the others?

Published on on 10.12.2013