You may never have heard of Andreas Schleicher, a placid German who wouldn’t look out of place as the reliable engineer in an Audi advert, but he is the most powerful man in global education. An employee of the OECD, he is the man in charge of Pisa, a triennial assessment that measures the performance of children across 65 countries and regions.
Despite OECD warnings that the results are not reliable enough to present as league tables, they always are. And a country’s placing can inflict trauma on national psyches. When Pisa was first released, the Germans were so astonished at their relatively poor results that they invented a new word: Pisa-Schock.
More recently, US officials, finding their pupils in the bottom half of the table, have talked of a “Sputnik moment”. When the latest results were published last week, England’s education secretary Michael Gove and his Labour counterpart Tristram Hunt immediately launched into battle over which party was most to blame for the country’s average performance. Much of Pisa’s power, in the west at least, comes from a sense that it represents a new and frightening geopolitical reality. Last week’s results saw east Asian countries move even further ahead and emerging economies such as Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey on the rise. Meanwhile, the US and western Europe have not improved at all – with the notable exception of Germany. In our nightmares this is what the balance of power looks like 10 or 20 years down the line.
There are, though, reasons to question this narrative. Pisa tests a quite specific set of skills. Timss, another international test that looks more closely at the type of content we have in our curriculums, finds the UK and US up in the top 10, not so far off the far east.
Moreover the seemingly intuitive relationship between education and economic success is not that clear. In the first international mathematics test, in the early 1960s, the US came last, yet has remained an economic superpower. The researcher Keith Baker actually found a negative correlation between scores in this test and future growth. Similarly, the US-based Chinese academic Yong Zhao found a negative correlation between Pisa scores and a global survey of entrepreneurial aspirations.
That said, it would require some complacency to think we should pay no attention to Pisa at all. The risk of our current approach to Pisa analysis is that educators, fed up with being blamed for failure, simply dismiss it all as meaningless political theatre. That would be a shame since, for all its complexity, the results do raise important questions.
Particularly: how do poor children in Asian countries do so well? Only 6 per cent of the UK’s poorest quartile of pupils appear in the highest quarter of maths performers globally. In Japan and South Korea the figure is twice as high. In Shanghai and Hong Kong it is four times higher. The poorest quartile of students in Shanghai do better in maths than the richest in the UK.
It is tempting to put this down to “culture”. And it is true; the level of expectation in Chinese, Korean and Japanese schools, from both parents and teachers, is higher. The west’s obsession with innate ability means we tend to assume than a certain percentage of young people are not “suited” to academic pursuits.
Far Eastern students spend more time in school, more time in after-school lessons and more time on homework. And the work they are doing is harder and more complex. When a pupil falls behind, it is assumed they will be able to catch up with the right intervention rather than that they are “low ability”.
Yet policy has played a part too. Shanghai has seen big improvements over recent years through a series of reforms to get good teachers and headteachers into the weakest performing schools – something that was also behind much of the recent improvement in London’s schools.
Moreover, there has been huge focus on professional development; with teachers spending less time in the classroom and more time planning and researching (the cost has been bigger classes). Singapore has also invested in workforce development; headteachers there now get academic-style sabbaticals.
Some less-heralded high performers, such as Poland and Estonia, have also been investing in teachers, as well as toughening up their curriculums. Estonia in particular has managed to combine impressive rigour with modernity, recently introducing computer coding for all first-year primary students.
We do, though, need to be careful about cherry-picking things that seem to work abroad. As Professor Robert Coe of Durham university has said, almost any policy invoked as the recipe for a given country’s success can also be found in a low- performing country. Implementation is key. Whatever reforms are undertaken need clear objectives and widespread buy-in. Assigning blame for “failures”, whether to politicians or to teachers, does not help. It might be that our Sturm und Drang approach to the education debate is the first thing we need to change.
The writer is a former adviser to the British education secretary and director of research at Teach First
近年来，美国官员在看到本国学生的成绩在排行榜中位居后列时，就用“斯普特尼克时刻”(Sputnik moment)来形容他们所感受到的震撼（斯普特尼克一号是苏联发射的第一颗人造卫星，在当时给美国带来巨大危机感——译者注）。当最近一次测试结果于上周发布时，身为保守党成员的英国教育大臣迈克尔?戈夫(Michael Gove)与工党的特里斯特拉姆?亨特(Tristram Hunt)立即展开舌战，争论哪个党派应为英国学生的平庸表现负主要责任。
但我们在选择性借鉴其他国家的成功经验时还应慎重。英国杜伦大学(Durham University)教授罗伯特?科(Robert Coe)曾经说过，几乎任何被认为促成了某国成功的政策都能在另一个表现糟糕的国家找到。政策的执行才是关键。不论实施什么改革，都需要明确目标，并争取广泛的支持。追究“失败”的责任，不管是归咎于政客还是教师都与事无补。或许我们在教育讨论中所采取的“狂飙突进”方法是我们应当改变的第一件事。