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Editorial - Pisa's success could prove to be its undoing

By Ann Mroz

"The world economy", says Andreas Schleicher, the official running the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), the results of which were released this week, "doesn't pay you for what you know, it pays you for what you can do."

Unfortunately for many 15-year-olds, the focus has been on what they can't do. Specifically, when compared with students from the high-achieving East Asian nations dominating the rankings.

Since its inception in 2001 Pisa has become a very big deal. For one brief moment on Tuesday all attention switched from Olympic diver Tom Daley's coming out to the big splash from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It's hard not to feel sorry for the half million or so children who took part in 2012 and are now being judged not only nationally but internationally. It's like turning up for a quick kickabout on Hackney Marshes to find that you're really playing in the World Cup. No longer is it just about taking a test, it's also about national pride: the Scots even made a pre-Pisa video for its students about representing their country - Scotland expects.

Behind the headline ranking, expectations of a different kind feature in the Pisa data. Children whose parents have high expectations for them - a university degree and a professional job in later life - perform better than those of less ambitious parents: they tend to try harder, they persevere more, they are more motivated to learn and they have more confidence in their own ability.

East Asian and Chinese children score well here, regardless of socio- economic status. Think less Tiger mother and more an ambush of tigers - "the grandmothers, the entire family, the schools", according to Schleicher. The smaller families in the East, particularly China with its longtime one-child policy, make for much investment, both emotional and financial, especially when the offspring is also in effect the retirement plan.

For children this means a heavy workload, with school all day followed by private classes in the evening. But the national rewards are great. "Those countries that believe some are born smart or bright while others aren't, and reinforce that through the education system, will never be among the top performers. Pacific Asia's focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way," Sir Michael Barber, former adviser to Tony Blair, points out.

Pisa is certainly not perfect but it does, as the OECD is keen to point out, show what is possible, giving countries the opportunity to learn from one another and educationalists a fascinating wealth of data (six fat volumes). But as its importance and influence grow, so do the national soul-searching, political mud-slinging and gnashing of teeth. This week there have been complaints of unfairness - Shanghai entered instead of the whole of China - and "cheating" by teaching to the test.

The latter, combined with some countries setting goals based on the results and even starting to tailor their entire education systems specifically to improve their ranking, provides a good example of Goodhart's law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. For Pisa its very success could prove to be its undoing.

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