No doubt twitchy politicians and nervous bureaucrats are still digesting the triennial OECD test scores on international educational achievement. From all the media coverage, one thing is abundantly clear: this arithmetic continues its rise as vehicle of choice for social, economic and cultural improvement worldwide.
Often considered disinterested and objective, the new scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed the UK and US making no progress from stodgy mid-table; Australia, Sweden and Scotland among those in decline; Russia and Poland improving; and east Asian systems like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai remaining streets ahead of almost everywhere else.
The PISA gives two-hour multiple choice tests to 15-year-olds in 64 countries or economic regions, measuring their aptitude in maths, reading and science. First introduced in 2000, the scores are used to cajole and influence political and public sentiment and manipulate policy.
And what can possibly be wrong with knowing as much as we can about the educational performance of high school students? If you can count it, it must be real and if it’s real, surely it reflects some reality.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills and architect of the PISA report, once opined that without data “you are just another person with an opinion”. This is palpable nonsense and matters are rarely that simple. Rather like quantum observations, attempting to observe one property of an object often misses another property that can be equally or more important.
Numbers and reality
If Schleicher meant “data” in a comprehensive sense the discussion might be different but he really means numbers – specific ones which value data recall over other forms of knowing. Of course, such a non-verifiable proposition as the PISA as a proxy for an educational system and participants’ skills reinforces the status of someone whose raison d’être is promoting the arithmetic as a solution to the global(ised) challenges of education.
Existing in the actual world of lived experience rather than the virtual world of OECD bureaucrats, however, might make us cautious. We have reached a stage where governments govern according to ideological obsessions and predispositions, and populations behave in defiance of numbers.
Take Brexit and Donald Trump. The numbers suggest it is inadvisable at best to leave the EU; and that Trump is unlikely to be able or willing to make the changes to trade and taxation necessary to benefit dispossessed American workers. People voted for them anyway – against their apparent interests.
In the UK, to take another example, politicians have consistently promulgated teaching reading by comprehensively adopting synthetic phonics, where you start with basic (artificial) sounds and gradually build up to reading words and sentences. This despite a government-commissioned report that suggested it offered no advantages over other forms of phonetic reading.
More recently UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s obsession with reintroducing grammar schools blithely disregarded the numbers. They have consistently indicated that grammar schools are ineffective vehicles for social mobility or raising attainment.
These examples suggest that other things are at play apart from the facts and that the numbers are often deployed to pursue policies that the numbers themselves don’t support. And in a world of political lies – let’s not call it post-truth – media and politicians have created a prudential and moral equivalence between arguments, irrespective of their quality.
It is as if every proposition was as good or bad as every other and only to be discriminated with reference to the arithmetic. And Schleicher and his scoring system contribute significantly to this corrosive culture through the PISA promotion of number scales on a limited set of assessment instruments.
Despite the tortured relationship between the arithmetic and policy, governments seem increasingly cowed by the PISA process. The US government invoked these results to justify introducing its “Race to the Top” programme, for example. This substantially increased assessment, tests and rankings for teachers and students, and forced a false equivalence between very different institutions. It created short-term learning objects of what Beatrix Potter might have called “snippets and tippets”, rather than a coherent account of the object of study.
Perhaps worse, PISA is deployed in an unending process of “correcting educators’ mistakes”. Thus Michael Gove, the former UK education secretary, introduced his white paper on education in 2011 by explicitly suggesting his urgent intervention to reshape English education was driven by the PISA comparisons.
Underlying the OECD rhetoric is a belief in a singular account of professional education that can be unearthed by the numbers. In truth, high scorers like Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong, Finland, China and Japan have little in common structurally or pedagogically – except perhaps a genuine reverence for education, unlike the UK.
The OECD also fails to tell us that the numbers are loaded from the outset. They foreground some things at the expense of others. The drive for a common set of test items fails to take into account the subtle relationship between, say, acquiring number skills and the creative uses to which they can be put.
Not all test items are applied to every student, the numbers are tiny and selective, and there is poor pre-testing practice. Ironically one of the most significant indictments of the PISA is seen in the US and the UK. Despite their mediocre performance, they remain immensely creative and usually venues of choice for university education.
Even in the China Daily, a recent article on certain tier-one PISA performers conceded education was more than the sum of a few selective numbers. The problem is not that the numbers tell us nothing. Apart from the many methodological flaws, the big challenge is, they don’t tell us much – and certainly nowhere near as much as politicians, press, pundits and sundry hangers on would have us believe.
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