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Why PISA Does Not Matter  

2013-12-11 12:10:36|  分类: 教育 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Release of 2012 results for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that students from Shanghai scored the highest in math, reading and science. When CNN first released such results, many American readers reacted in frustration to America’s low ranking. US education secretary Arne Duncan said that the results show a “picture of educational stagnation.”

As a city, Shanghai deserves some praise for the results. I used to live and work in Shanghai, where I found that schools and families place high value on educating children for a better future. Shanghaiists, known for their pragmatism, do not jump on educational bandwagons. Shanghai did not join many other provinces in recent wave of reform to reduce weighting of English tests in high-stake exams. It is taking a more prudent method of seeing how pilot cities turn out in such controversial reforms. Children in Shanghai also spend much more time studying than average children in America. In America, pediatricians advise that children go to bed at around eight in the evening, whereas in Shanghai, children often study till ten or eleven at night. All things being equal, PISA shows that it pays to spend time on task, and to emphasize education. Yet people do not need international assessments to come to these conclusions that are almost self-evident.

Education is as complex as human nature itself. One should be cautious establishing causal relationships without research that has been rigorously designed and strictly implemented. Recent PISA assessments, as they are reported, are epitome of bad research. The sampling, for instance, defies rules that entry-level researchers would blush to violate. Why is Shanghai, an outlier in China in terms of educational resources, selected to represent China? Comparing a city with other countries is also preposterous. It does not flatter most Chinese to see its top city outperform the rest of the world. Some may even be provoked into thinking about equal access to educational resource.

In addition, samples are not drawn from the Shanghai population methodologically. Migrant workers’ children are not included in public education and therefore excluded from the assessment. In such homogeneity, Shanghai students cannot be used for benchmarking purposes. American public schools are far more diverse, having numerous ethnic groups with varying degrees of academic motivation and effort. Inclusive education schools also have students with special needs.

Barely controlling for confounding variables, such assessments fail to show the process measures except hours of study. From the results it is hard to see what Shanghai does right in its curriculum and instruction. What kind of interventions did Shanghai implement to succeed?

Conclusions people draw from PISA are only as valid as the design of the PISA project. The CNN report on the assessment cites respect for teachers as one of the success factors for Shanghai, which is simply the confirmation of a bias. Traditional Chinese values are undergoing tremendous changes with shifts in demographics. Most Shanghai students are single children in the family, have a strong sense of personal rights and privileges. They are becoming increasingly assertive or even aggressive. Teachers sometimes feel disrespected and disillusioned. A recent Chinese bestseller called the Workbees laments the misery of young college teachers.

Commenting on PISA results, David Stout of Times Magazine claims that China is “cheating the world student rankings system”. Some of my American friends have similar impression. I tend to think that education alarmist just want to use such assessments, devoid of validity and reliability, to jolt American education out of complacency and into positive change. The American public may also take such tests far more seriously than Chinese do. The Chinese, on the other hand, rarely have false illusions about China’s education. In China, PISA results are often dismissed or laughed at. They may even call attention to entrenched problems in the educational system. People are unhappy that Chinese students spend too much time studying compared to their international peers. Chinese educators also worry that the nation’s curriculum often does not include citizenship and life skills training. Few bask in the glory of PISA ranking.

Shanghai is often perceived as the most "westernized" city in Mainland China, constantly learning from America and other countries. If America starts to look to Shanghai for inspiration, we run into the dilemma described in the weatherman and Indians joke: The weatherman on TV predicts cold weather while seeing Indians gather firewood. And Indians gather firewood more diligently after hearing the weatherman forecast cold weather on TV. Richer Chinese, from Shanghai especially, are considering sending children to America or Europe to study. It would be interesting if these children come to America or Europe to find the new trend is to learn from the Chinese "experience".

For national comparisons, it may not be a stretch to say that PISA results have largely failed to be useful, if not entirely misleading. People just gain what they spend more time doing. Learning from another country is useful only when it is possible to unmistakably identify some transferable practices that have proved to work. Besides, countries do not have to think in terms of competition in a narrow set of subjects. Like people, countries may perform best by improving what they are best at, instead of making up for what other countries are good at. There may be multiple educational paths to "success", even if we can reach some kind of agreement on what that means.

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