New York Times columnist Tom Friedman had a column a few days ago saying that PISA would soon make it possible for everyone to compare the scores of their school to schools all over the world. No one will be average anymore! Just being able to take tests and compare scores will drive us all to the top!

After I read this with a sinking sensation, thinking of the whole world competing to get better test scores (why?), I asked the eminent scholar Yong Zhao to react to this column.

He sent the following as he was traveling in Australia:

“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”

Sounds like a commercial for a global standardized testing service? Well, it is. And it is from one of the most influential media outlets The New York Times and endorsed by one of the most popular voices about globalization Thomas Friedman in an op-ed piece last week


The product is OECD’s PISA, the international assessment program that claims to test reading, math, and science skills of 15 year olds. PISA should a great case study of marketing strategy in business schools. In about 10 years, it has been successfully marketed to governments and educational authorities in over 70 countries.


PISA has convinced many that it is the gold standard of education quality. Although there are other international assessment programs, which has had a long history, but more countries participate in PISA, which by itself is a great marketing slogan, just like “More Doctors Smoke Camel”



Up until now, PISA has remained at the system level, reporting averages of groups of students, which has already generated a “PISA Score Race” across the world. With this new round of PISA and the system OECD is developing, it is coming to a school near you and your house. But before you log on and “march to your local superintendent and ask ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland,’ it would be good if you ask the PISA advocates the following questions:


  1. Why didn’t the Chinese have a big party celebrating its stunning PISA performance? When the last round of PISA results were released in 2010, China’s Shanghai scored #1 in all three areas, but China, a country eager to celebrate any international achievement, did not even have much national media coverage. In fact, whenever PISA was discussed inside China, it is often associated with “so what?” (Read my blog posts: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance and The Grass is Greener:
  2. Why the Chinese, who supposedly enjoy the best education according to PISA, spend their life’s savings to send their children to U.S. schools, which supposedly offer a much inferior education? Those who cannot afford to send their children overseas work hard to send their children American schools inside China. If they cannot even do that, they send their children to after school programs modeled after American schools. One of the programs that spread like wildfire in China claims to offer “authentic American K-12 education.” “Attend American Schools in China” is its marketing line.


The reason is perhaps best illustrated by OECD itself. A report (  about lessons to learn from high PISA performers produced by OECD says:


Compared with other societies, young people in Shanghai may be much more immersed in learning in the broadest sense of the term. The logical conclusion is that they learn more, even though what they learn and how they learn are subjects of constant debate. Critics see young people as being “fed” learning because they are seldom left on their own to learn in a way of their choice. They have little direct encounters with nature, for example, and little experience with society either. While they have learned a lot, they may not have learned how to learn. The Shanghai government is developing new policy interventions to reduce student workload and to refocus the quality of student learning experiences over quantity. (p. 103)


Essentially, the issues (and questions we must ask) are:


  1. Is what the PISA measures truly valuable? Ultimately, we all want a great education for our children, but does PISA scores really measure the quality of education our children will need?
  2. What is sacrificed to achieve such high scores? Are the sacrifices worth the scores?
  3. If China has such a great education, why don’t we just outsource it to China?


Read my op-ed in Education Week: Doublethink


In a nutshell, American education is far from perfect, but China is not a model for emulation. For more about China, PISA, and American education, read my latest book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization