With the release on December 3 of the PISA 2012 report, educators around the globe have the chance to hold up a mirror to their education efforts and policy makers get concrete evidence of the success, or otherwise, of their endeavours. Education Gazette asked for insight from one of the world’s foremost education experts, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Adviser on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General.
Q – Education Gazette: PISA has been running for more than 10 years. Has it enabled you to define the attributes that contribute to a ‘successful’ education system?
A – Andreas Schleicher: Obviously, one can’t copy and paste school systems wholesale. But PISA has revealed a surprising number of features which the world’s most successful school systems share. These may articulate themselves differently within different policy and social contexts, but the ideas are remarkably similar.
For example, students in high-performing countries consistently say that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, which suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education. High-performing systems embrace diversity among students with differentiated instructional practices, their teachers have high expectations for every student and realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents. Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers.
High-performing systems pay great attention to how they select and train their staff. When deciding where to invest, they prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes. Not least, they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and have moved on from bureaucratic control and accountability to professional forms of work organisation. They support their teachers to make innovations in pedagogy, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to stronger educational practice.
Often in education, the policy focus is still on the provision of education; in top school systems it’s on outcomes, which means shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school. It’s about creating networks of innovation. And the most impressive outcome of world-class school systems is perhaps that they deliver high quality across the entire school system so that every student benefits from excellent learning. They align policies and practices effectively across all aspects of the system, they make them coherent over sustained periods of time, and they ensure that they are consistently implemented.
Q – You have had the opportunity to observe education in New Zealand: what have been your overall impressions?
A – I have been impressed by the dynamism in the New Zealand system and the strong role that schools are taking to shape educational development. New Zealand seems a system that successfully combines a high level of professional autonomy with a collaborative culture within schools.
The main challenge seems to be to get everybody to the impressive performance level of the leading schools. When I had dinner with New Zealand’s cross-sector forum, school principals spoke of the difficulties they face with attracting, developing, and retaining effective teachers, of prioritising and delegating their work, of managing their resources strategically, and of collaborating with other schools. In your socio-economically privileged schools, the trustees provide magnificent stakeholder support. They elect talented principals and add the expertise of lawyers, accountants, and administrators which autonomous schools need to function effectively.
But in many disadvantaged neighbourhoods, it seems schools are having a hard time finding any trustees, and where they do, these are unlikely to provide the governance, oversight, and resources that are needed – and even more unlikely to challenge an underperforming principal.
In my view, New Zealand needs its best teachers and its best schools to provide the expertise and resources for all teachers to update their knowledge, skills, and approaches in light of new teaching techniques, new circumstances, and new research; it needs its best teachers to help other teachers to get on top of changes made to curricula or teaching practice; and it needs its best school principals to enable other schools to develop and apply effective strategies.
But knowledge is very sticky, particularly in a highly competitive school system. Knowledge of strong educational practice tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management. That means New Zealand will have to think much harder about how it will actually shift knowledge around pockets of innovation and better align resources with the challenges.
Q – PISA is a tool to inform public policy, but what do you think the average teacher can draw from the data? How can they relate this to their practice?
A – You can only improve what you can see, and PISA enables teachers to see their work in the mirror of what other teachers, schools, and school systems show is possible to achieve. Of course, teachers can also learn from the data directly, but what matters most is the conversation that these data generate about high educational performance.
Q – What strikes you as most significant about the findings of PISA 2012?
A – Results from PISA 2012 show amazing changes in the world’s talent. Shanghai, already the top-performing education system in 2009, has extended its lead in students’ maths performance over the next highest performer, Singapore, to the equivalent of a full school year. And that was at a time when Singapore, too, saw rapid progress. Some contend that Shanghai’s success in PISA just reflects rote learning and immense drilling for tests. But the most impressive performance of Shanghai’s students is actually not on the tasks that ask them to simply reproduce what they have learned, but on tasks where they need to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge creatively in novel situations.
Consider this: Only four per cent of New Zealand’s students can conceptualise, generalise, and use advanced maths in creative ways, which is what the highest performance level in PISA requires. In Shanghai, it is over 30 per cent. Shanghai has understood that the world economy will pay an ever-rising premium for excellence, and that today’s economy no longer rewards people simply for what they know – Google knows everything – but for what they can do with what they know.
PISA 2012 – How did we do?
PISA assesses students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading and science. In New Zealand:
- student performance in all three subjects declined between 2009 and 2012 but remains above the OECD average,
- the proportion of students achieving below Level 2 in mathematics and science increased between 2009 and 2012 - their lack of skills is a barrier to learning,
- there is a high proportion of students with advanced skills who are achieving at Level 5 or 6, particularly in reading,
- the proportion of students who are top performers across all three subjects (all-rounders) is high,
- the average mathematics scores for boys and girls and for New Zealand European/Pākehā, Māori and Pasifika students declined between 2009 and 2012,
- boys did better than girls in mathematics; girls did better than boys in reading; and there was very little difference in science,
- New Zealand European/Pākehā and Asian students scored above the OECD average in mathematics while Māori and Pasifika students scored below the OECD average,
- the gap in the achievement of our highest and lowest performing students is one of the largest among PISA countries and economies,
- students demonstrated relative strength in the mathematics domain of uncertainty and data (statistics) and weaker achievement in space and shape (geometry and measurement),
- although students achieve relatively well, the difference between the performance of our highest and lowest achieving students shows that we have relatively low equality in learning outcomes, and
- the variability of mathematics scores within a school is high while the variability in scores across schools is relatively low – although this is increasing.
New Zealand also took part in the PISA financial literacy assessment. These results will be available in mid-2014.