3rd December 2013 at 15:35
Fred Van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, the global federation for teacher unions, writes:
Pisa’s importance for education systems has increased exponentially over its fifteen-year life. Ministers' careers can be undermined or enhanced by Pisa’s results. It is now seen as the authoritative judgement on education. Indeed, whatever anyone might think of it, it will be a key part of the educational landscape for the foreseeable future.
What do teachers around the world think of it? It’s most accurate to say that they look at it with mixed feelings. Many of its findings enhance what they know to be good for their schools. Pisa makes it absolutely clear that no education system can be successful without a confident, high-quality teaching profession. Our Unite for Quality Education campaign mirrors this finding.
Teachers in public education will welcome Pisa’s reassertion that there is little difference between the quality of private and public-sector schools once children’s social background has been factored out. And every teacher, particularly in countries that have been operating a pay freeze for the last few years, will welcome Pisa’s finding that a highly-paid profession is a powerful predictor of a country’s educational success, despite the OECD’s peculiar assertion that an increase in class sizes might have to pay for it.
Pisa even has powerful caveats for all those who want the deconstruction of education systems, with total power devolved to school principals. It argues that, especially where there is significant devolution, there has to be a strong sense of purpose and understanding with schools about what is expected of them. Indeed, Pisa makes it clear that unless teachers have a say in managing schools it would be better if schools returned to centralised management.
Also welcome is the OECD’s concentration on securing a gender balance in engagement in mathematics, as is its continuing assertion that a properly developed early-years’ service is vital for a county’s educational success.
However, there are two reasons why Pisa makes teachers anxious. The first is its use of rankings and league tables of countries, which are often misleading and unfair. For example, education systems that are improving often occupy the lower part of the tables. The OECD itself acknowledges that a single league table position is not accurate due to the statistical limitations of the sample size.
Secondly, performance is defined by solely three literacies: numeracy, reading and science. Important as they are, they cannot be a proxy for describing the quality of everything that is taught in schools. The arts, modern foreign languages and the humanities are just a few examples of learning not covered by Pisa.
Perhaps even more importantly, Pisa doesn’t reflect teachers’ work on enhancing children’s social attitudes and optimism for the future. To be fair on the OECD, this is because countries refuse to pay for an expansion of Pisa coverage, but it does mean the tables give the message that other aspect of education appears to be less important.
Another issue is the question of how well the Chinese mainland regions perform. How scientifically valid and fair is it to compare geographically small regions such as Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong in China with whole large and diverse countries in other continents? This brings me to the issue of Pisa’s description of regional performance as a whole. This is welcome, but it will inevitably mean that country rankings become even less valid.
Finally, teachers know the pressure they are under, particularly when dealing with the outcomes of poverty and neglect on children. Pisa emphasises that the socioeconomic status of students remains a strong predictor of performance. That being the case, it would have been worth a reflection in Pisa about the strains of the economic crisis on hitherto high-performing systems like Sweden, as well as countries such as Greece.
There are two ways of approaching Pisa. The first is to view it as an attempt by a sinister multi-national organisation to impose a one-size-fits-all model of education on schools. The second is not to allow governments to see it as their own property. After all, it is school communities filling in their questionnaires that give Pisa its depth. For teachers and their unions, the evidence from Pisa should represent the opportunity to create policies that make governments understand that education will not be successful without the voice of the teaching profession at its centre.
Follow Fred on Twitter @fredvanleeuwen
Read the rest of TES' Pisa coverage at our dedicated Pisa 2012 page.