The new PISA survey of student knowledge and skills tells us more than we have ever known about which education systems do well. It reveals some interesting surprises, too. The results may point to a need for improvements to education systems worldwide, though this does not mean a standardised curriculum for all countries.
Today we take for granted international comparisons of growth and inflation. High-quality employment indicators have been available for some time, too, but what about international indicators of education systems? That has been a much harder task, mainly because the true ¡§outcomes¡¨ of education cannot easily be measured across systems. Studies can look at how long people spend in education, or at how many students pass exams at roughly comparable levels, but because these exams are not the same in different countries, that does not really allow you to see how well each system educates its students. International tests have hitherto focused on how well students have mastered certain parts of the curriculum common to all countries ¡V a useful but narrow measure of performance.
PISA -- the Programme for International Student Assessment -- has now provided a missing piece of the jigsaw. It assesses how well students nearing the end of compulsory education (age 15) are able to apply the knowledge and skills developed at school, to perform tasks that they will need in their future lives, to function in society and to continue learning. Are students able to find the information that they need in a newspaper article? Can they distinguish opinion from fact? Can they use broad scientific understanding to draw valid conclusions from evidence on matters that affect their lives, such as the environment or food safety? These kinds of questions are answered in PISA¡¦s assessment of reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy.
Co-ordinated by the OECD, PISA is a collaborative effort among the governments of 28 OECD and four non-member countries. The first results, published in December 2001, provide an indicator of the outcome of initial education that is officially recognised across the developed world. Crucially, the survey will be repeated every three years, allowing countries to monitor progress regularly. In 2003, all 30 OECD countries will take part, while at least 13 more non-members, from China to Chile, are joining the survey. What do the PISA results show? Finnish students did particularly well in reading, and Japanese and Koreans excelled in mathematics and science. Australia, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom were significantly above average for all three types of literacy. Those consistently below average included two relatively affluent economies, Germany and Italy, as well as others with below-average national income like Greece, Mexico, Poland and Portugal. The United States performed bang in the middle. These averages mask important variations in performance within each country. Since most education systems have been trying particularly to improve the performance of the lowest achievers, the amount of variation in achievement is important.
Germany was one of the countries with the greatest inequalities in reading literacy, with poor performing students dragging down the average. New Zealand is another unequal country, but more students there than anywhere else had top literacy levels, lifting the overall performance to well above average. In Korea and Finland, in contrast, high average scores were achieved with relatively narrow differences. PISA shows clearly that "quality" and "equity" in school systems need not conflict with each other.
PISA also tells us more about performance differences and social background. It shows that while privileged students do better everywhere, the gap is not immutable: it is two to three times wider in Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, for example, than in Korea. PISA¡¦s results may reveal, when we examine them more closely, some things about which kinds of school practices might lie behind good and bad results, such as the atmosphere in the classroom, or policies on setting homework. Yet they may only hint at the answers to some of the deeper questions about why, for example, students in some countries are so much better at thinking and reflecting about what they read than students in others.
There has been great hesitancy among academics, governments and international organisations in comparing such less tangible aspects of education systems, and in particular the cultural approaches that distinguish them. Japanese schools may produce adults who think in one kind of way, which is fine for Japanese society. Swiss students might think in ways that are appropriate to Switzerland¡¦s society. Who is to say which one is better? Is it not dangerous to impose a single international standard of what schools should teach?
Absolutely: this is a reason for resisting an international curriculum, but not for ignoring the common need for certain key competencies across the international economy. Reading, science and mathematics are basic requirements everywhere, and PISA shows that those skills are unevenly distributed across countries.
The below-average performance of well-off countries like Germany and Italy is likely to stimulate debate. Teaching methods and curriculum approaches in some countries may be scrutinised. International comparisons will be inevitable and a country's educators will have to accept outsiders into the hidden garden of their classrooms, however uncomfortable the experience. The harsh wind of globalisation will not forever spare those concerned with perhaps the most powerful global force of all: that of learning.
• Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000, OECD, 2001.
©OECD Observer No 230, January 2002.