Education Newsletter #11: PISA Special

The big news! Latest PISA results have been announced. Education-interested-population in India, of which you are part, is going gaga over Singapore, the topper this year. What happened to Finland? India hasn’t participated in the study after it came second to last in the only participation. Another less-known but very influential math and science study — TIMSS results have also been declared. There is a lot of noise around these results and somehow we get the takeaways wrong. This newsletter should help.

Rankings and Education

Indian context

Even if India would have participated, we would have performed abysmally. Study of the ‘best’ schools (implying the richest) in India shows that our ‘best’ are worse than the PISA average. We perform better in questions requiring memory and direct procedure rather than ones needing creative and analytical thought. Must read report for those who are interested in quality.

For the cultural theorists, I claim that Drona-Ekalavya is responsible for our poor understanding of education. tldr: Ekalavya did self-study, Drona took credit and that is what we pass off as good teaching.

The dialogue around PISA highlights our fascination with ‘toppers’, tests, rankings and our ignorance of systems and processes. PISA will probably become another check-box, a ritual that we want for impressing or oppressing, but devoid of meaning or an indicator of quality. As Behar writes about meaningless rituals in religion, manufacturing and education:

“All the certifications and the manuals were like the mantras, and the systems were sacred. But they were completely devoid of meaning. Written by experts, understood by few, used by even fewer. With little or no connection to reality, basically written to impress, not to live. The priesthood of the quality teams would lead the empty rituals, and their lay followers, i.e. the rest of the teams, would chant along.”

High performance doesn’t always mean students’ well-being
Children in East Asian countries (Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan) are the best performers in Science and Math according to TIMSS. However, points that media won’t cover:

  • East Asian systems are NOT the top users of computers in math lessons.
  • East Asian students DO NOT “very much like learning mathematics”
  • East Asian students have very little confidence in mathematics
  • East Asian students don’t value math much
  • East Asian parents are not “very satisfied” with their schools (only 7% in Japan)
  • East Asian schools do not necessarily put a “very high emphasis” on academic success
  • East Asian teachers are not “very satisfied” with their jobs
  • East Asian students do not have a “high sense of school belonging.”
  • East Asian students do not necessarily receive more classroom instruction compared to the U.S., Australia, Canada or England (probably neglects private tuition)
  • East Asian students receive the least engaging math lessons in the world

If the students are not engaged and teachers are not happy, does it mean that teaching and learning process is successful? For people who want to borrow policies, maybe getting Indians to eat from chopsticks might be a good idea.


What to learn from PISA and TIMSS?
Experts point out: “Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to

  • make teaching more prestigious and selective; (professionalism)
  • directed more resources to their neediest children; (equity)
  • enrolled most children in high-quality preschools;
  • helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement”

Other findings:

  • Money does matter but not much after a point
  • private schools don’t teach any better
  • excellence and equity go hand in hand
  • avoid students repeating years; it’s an excuse to not teach the most difficult kids (No Detention Policy naysayers, take notes)
  • Don’t divide students by ability into streams (The more academically selective you are the more socially selective you become)
  • focus time and effort into classroom rather than structure of school systems
  • teach teachers as professionals (worth repeating)

Finland and Singapore — what happens?

Many observers fail to notice the staggering amount of private tuition in Singapore which leads to huge pressure on students and parents. Most of the burden is felt by the poor and learning outcomes differ strongly by income levels. While Singapore does a lot of things well, the role of private, supplementary education is a cause of concern.

Pasi Sahlberg points out that PISA results are not a surprise to Finland and won’t trigger education reforms. They monitor their education closely they have observed equity and performance of boys decline due to budget cuts and new social and technological factors. The Finnish way of thinking is that the best way to address insufficient educational performance is not to raise standards or increase instruction time (or homework) but make school a more interesting and enjoyable place for all. Raising student motivation to study and well-being in school in general. PISA tells us only a small part of what happens in education in any country. Most of what Finland does, for example, is not shown in PISA at all. So they won’t be adjusting their schooling for higher PISA scores.

Thank you for reading the newsletter. Please recommend it to people who might find it useful. People can sign up here. The previous newsletters can be accessed at medium and my blog.
I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

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