Moving Beyond the Drama and Hyperbole that Dominate International Test Score Results

Moving Beyond the Drama and Hyperbole that Dominate International Test Score Results. The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles the 2013 PISA international test results.  In this post I want to focus on the article written by Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg entitled, PISA 2012 scores show the failure of ‘market based’ education reform (Sahlberg, Pasi, 2013). Sahlberg is Director General of International Centre at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki.  He has written extensively about educational improvement and enhancing equity as the focus of improving education. Dr. Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not an proper use of international test results, in this case PISA. As I’ve reported many times on this blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or the inability of its students to compete in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well last week.  Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said that for the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

Global Educational Reform

But Dr. Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM).  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by standardization (Common Core), core subjects (math, reading, science), teaching to the test, corporate management style, and test-based accountability.  When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.” Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)

Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)

These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

Non-Global Education Reform

But Sahlberg, if he were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, would not suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead Dr. Sahlberg would suggest that the standard-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.  Disclaimer: There are many organizations, groups, individual educators and policy makers in nations that are infected by GERM who oppose these market-based reforms, and suggest that equity must be at the center of educational reform). According to Sahlberg, a school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Beyond GERM

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science. 3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools. 4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal government. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.  As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her new book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century,

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).

References:

Sahlberg, Pasi. “The PISA 2012 Scores Show the Failure of ‘market Based’ Education Reform.” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 08 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. “A Picture of Educational Stagnation’: Study Finds US Teen Students Lagging.” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 03 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25). Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 103-107). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

...and I'M STILL FOR HER.

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