Archives for category: International

This may not come as a big surprise. The Economist magazine, known for its free-market perspective, supports the growth of private schools for the poor in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Did you know that Pearson, the British mega-corporation, owns a 50% stake in the Economist?

The linked article heaps praise on privately owned schools for the poor, which are proliferating throughout the poorest nations. The Economist calls them $1 a week schools.

The article says:

Powerful teachers’ unions are part of the problem. They often see jobs as hereditary sinecures, the state education budget as a revenue stream to be milked and any attempt to monitor the quality of education as an intrusion. The unions can be fearsome enemies, so governments leave them to run schools in the interests of teachers rather than pupils.

The failure of state education, combined with the shift in emerging economies from farming to jobs that need at least a modicum of education, has caused a private-school boom. According to the World Bank, across the developing world a fifth of primary-school pupils are enrolled in private schools, twice as many as 20 years ago. So many private schools are unregistered that the real figure is likely to be much higher. A census in Lagos found 12,000 private schools, four times as many as on government records. Across Nigeria 26% of primary-age children were in private schools in 2010, up from 18% in 2004. In India in 2013, 29% were, up from 19% in 2006. In Liberia and Sierra Leone around 60% and 50% respectively of secondary-school enrolments are private.
By and large, politicians and educationalists are unenthusiastic. Governments see education as the state’s job. Teachers’ unions dislike private schools because they pay less and are harder to organise in. NGOs tend to be ideologically opposed to the private sector. The UN special rapporteur on education, Kishore Singh, has said that “for-profit education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of education”.

Very likely the teachers’ unions think that teachers should have certificates to demonstrate that they know more than their students and have some teachers training. But that doesn’t fit the budgets of the entrepreneurs.

One great thing, says the article, is that investors are flocking to add capital, in most cases expecting a profit from these low-cost schools:

First, it is bringing in money—not just from parents, but also from investors, some in search of a profit. Most private schools in the developing world are single operators that charge a few dollars a month, but chains are now emerging. Bridge International Academies, for instance, has 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda which teach in classrooms made from shipping containers. It plans to expand into Nigeria and India. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, Bill Gates and the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector arm, are among its investors. Chains are a healthy development, because they have reputations to guard.

Another article in the same issue of The Economist also celebrates the growth of private, for-profit K-12 education in developing countries. The general thesis is that government can’t or won’t provide decent schools, and the private sector can and will and should be encouraged to take the place of government.

Most of the evidence is anecdotal or where it purports to be authoritative, the source is lacking. Nonetheless, an occasional note of skepticism creeps in.

For example:

Given the choice between a free state school where little teaching happens and a private school where their children might actually learn something, parents who can scrape together the fees will plump for the latter. In a properly functioning market, the need to attract their custom would unleash competition and over time improve quality for all. But as a paper by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das and Asim Ijaz Khwaja published by the World Bank explains, market failures can stop that happening. Choosing a private school can be a perfectly rational personal choice, but have only a limited effect on overall results…

That means school choice can “sort” children into different types of schools: the most informed and committed parents colonise the better ones, which may then rely on their reputations to keep their position in the pecking order. Research from several parts of Africa and south Asia finds that children in low-cost private schools are from families that are better-off, get more help from parents with homework and have spent more time in pre-school. A round-up of research, much of it from south Asia, found that their pupils did better in assessments, though often only in some subjects. In the few studies that accounted for differences in family background and so on, their lead shrank.

Chile’s voucher scheme, which started in 1981 under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, aimed to enable poor students to move from bad public schools to good private ones and to raise standards by generating competition between the two. Today 38% of pupils are in state schools, 53% in private ones that accept vouchers and 7% in elite institutions that charge full fees. In the 1990s a post-Pinochet centre-left government allowed subsidised schools to charge top-up fees. They can also select their pupils by ability.

Chile does better than any other Latin American country in PISA, an international assessment of 15-year-olds in literacy, mathematics and science, suggesting a positive overall effect. But that is hardly a ringing endorsement: all the region’s countries come in the bottom third globally. And once the relatively privileged background of private-school pupils is taken into account, says Emiliana Vegas of the Inter-American Development Bank, state schools do better, especially since they serve the hardest-to-teach children.

Where private schools trounce state ones is in cost-effectiveness. A recent study in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh gave vouchers for low-cost private schools to around 6,000 randomly chosen pupils. Four years later they were compared with applicants who did not receive the vouchers. Both groups did equally well in mathematics and Telugu, the local language. But private schools had spent less time on these subjects in order to make space in the curriculum for English and science, in which their pupils did better. And spending on each pupil was only around a third that in the state sector. Lagos state spent at least $230 on each child it put through primary school between 2011 and 2013, public data suggest, around twice as much as a typical private school charges.

So, the private schools are cheaper, perhaps because they have teachers who lack credentials and training, but they don’t get better academic results.

The bottom line on The Economist articles is that they believe in competition and school choice, regardless of outcomes, because it is cost effective.

One refreshing difference between the British perspective and their American counterparts is that the Brits frankly own up to their love of privatization and their contempt for the public sector, whereas the American privatizers hide their agenda and call themselves “reformers.”

The new British secretary of state for education has learned something very silly by reading about the “reform movement” in the United States. She now wants Britain to be first in the world in teaching grit. Truly! No, not the grit that gets stuck between your teeth. Not the grit that collects on the soles of your shoes. No, she means character!

This post was written earlier this year, so I don’t know how the contest ended up, but get this, as reported by Robin Alexander of the Cambridge Primary Review:

Those who thought that the departure of Michael Gove might give schools a breather before the 2015 election, liberating them from the weekly explosion of initiatives and insults, reckoned without the ambition of his successor. These days, few education secretaries of state are content to do a good job, deeming it more important to leave an indelible mark in the name of ‘reform’. To this lamppost tendency Nicky Morgan appears to be no exception.

Her wheeze, and it’s a biggish one, is to make Britain ‘a global leader in teaching character and resilience … ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit.’ To that end, DfE has invited bids for projects showing how ‘character’ can be built, and on 16 March there’ll be a grand ceremony at which the 2015 Character Awards of £15,000 each will be presented to 27 schools, with a £20,000 prize for the best of the best. Morgan modestly defines her chosen legacy as ‘a landmark step for our education system.’

In the same way that New Labour claimed, witheringly but inaccurately, that before the imposition of its national literacy and numeracy strategies England’s primary teachers were ‘professionally uninformed’, so Nicky Morgan’s happy discovery of something called ‘character’ implies that schools have hitherto ignored everything except children’s academic development; and that creativity, PSHE, moral education, religious education and citizenship, not to mention those values that loom large in school prospectuses, websites and assemblies and above all in teachers’ daily dealings with their pupils, were to do with something else entirely. Remember the not-so-hidden ‘hidden curriculum’? If there is a ‘landmark step’ then, it is not character education but its political appropriation and repackaging.

So what, in Morgan’s book, constitutes ‘character’? Its main ingredients, as listed in the guidance to applicants for the DfE grants and character awards, are ‘perseverance, resilience and grit, confidence and optimism, motivation, drive and ambition.’ (Readers will recognize ‘resilience’ as one of the most overused words of 2014). Rather lower down the list come ‘neighbourliness’, ‘community spirit’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect.’

Like so much in recent English education policy, this account of character is imported from the United States. The Morgan character attributes are almost identical to those in the eponymous Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character, and in Dave Levin’s evangelising Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Here, then, we have a melding of the no-holds-barred values of corporate America with that fabled frontier spirit portrayed by John Wayne. ‘Grit’ anchors the education of character in both worlds….

If character is important, which it surely is, is such an idiosyncratic and unreconstructedly male account of it good enough, and is it for government to impose this or any other notion of character on every child in the land, of whatever inclination, personality, gender or culture? In one of two excellent blogs on this subject that I urge prospective applicants for the DfE awards to read, John White thinks not. He says: ‘Nicky Morgan is not wrong to focus on personal qualities, only about the set she advocates. This is tied to an ideology of winners and losers.’ (As, appropriately, is DfE’s Character Awards scheme itself). He reminds us of the considerably more rounded values framework appended to the version of the national curriculum that was introduced in 2000 and superseded last September, and he argues that ‘no politician has the right to steer a whole education system in this or any other partisan direction.’ For White, Morgan’s foray into character education is further confirmation of the need for curriculum decisions to be taken out of the hands of politicians and given to a body which is more representative, more knowledgeable and culturally more sensitive.

The other recent must-read blog on character education is by Jeffrey Snyder in the United States. He cites evidence that ‘character’ is more likely to be determined by genetically-determined personality traits than the efforts of teachers, and indeed he argues that anyway nobody really knows how to teach it. In this context it’s worth asking what those pupils subjected to 1850s/1950s character-building really learned, and whether there is indeed a correspondence between success on the playing field, in work and in adult life. And since you ask, did fagging and flogging really make for manliness (whatever that is) or were they merely perversions by another name?

Snyder argues, too, that the ‘perseverence, resilience and grit’ account of character ‘promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point of view’ adding, tellingly: ‘Never has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values and ethics.’ As a result, ‘character’ is as likely to be harnessed to the pursuit of ends that are evil as to those that are good. ‘Gone’, adds Snyder, ‘is the impetus to bring youngsters into a fold of community that is larger than themselves … When character education fails to distinguish doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw.’

Do read the embedded links. They connect to some very interesting articles by White and Snyder.

As you will note, this is an older post. I don’t know who won the national competition for teaching grit. When I find out, I will let you know.

Alan Singer attended a conference in Madrid, where he delivered a paper called “Hacking Away at the Pearson Octopus.” He writes that the movement to break Pearson’s stranglehold on education is indeed global.


In April, protesters from teacher unions and global justice groups stormed the gates at Pearson’s annual general meeting held in London. Protesters accused Pearson of turning education into a commodity and profiting from low-fee private schools in poverty-stricken regions of Africa and India. They claimed is making millions by privatizing education in the global south. Pearson’s Chief Executive Officer John Fallon, forced to respond to dissidents, declared his enthusiastic “support free public education for every child around the world.” However he did not offer to provide Pearson’s educational services for free….


A joint letter from Great Britain’s National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the organization Global Justice Now, declared “From fuelling the obsessive testing regimes that are the backbone of the ‘test and punish’ efforts in the global north, to supporting the predatory, ‘low-fee’ for-profit private schools in the global south, Pearson’s brand has become synonymous with profiteering and the destruction of public education.”


ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said: “School curricula should not be patented and charged for. Tests should not distort what is taught and how it is assessed. Unfortunately, as the profit motive embeds itself in education systems around the world, these fundamental principles come under ever greater threat leading to greater inequality and exclusion for the most disadvantaged children and young people.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, added the voice of American teachers to the protest movement. “We fight this kind of profit making to get kids a good education and fight for governments which gives students a high quality education…..’


According to Kishore Singh of India who works for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“At the beginning of the new millennium, the international community made a commitment to achieve universal primary education for all boys and girls. Today, 15 years later, we find huge gaps between these commitments and reality. Across the world, 58 million children still don’t have access to schools, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Millions more fail to graduate, or fail to learn what they need to participate in society meaningfully. Capitalising on the inability of governments to cope with rising demands on public learning, private education providers are mushrooming. I see this not as progress, but as an indictment of governments that have failed to meet their obligation to provide universal, free and high-quality education for all. Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is the inalienable right of every child. The state must discharge its responsibility as guarantor and regulator of education as a fundamental human entitlement and as a public cause. The provision of basic education, free of cost, is not only a core obligation of states but also a moral imperative.”


Singer repeats:

“The provision of basic education, free of cost, is not only a core obligation of states but also a moral imperative.” A very good reason to hack away at the Pearson octopus.





This report is a fascinating and scary analysis of Pearson’s ambitious efforts to create a demand for their products around the world and to satisfy that demand while making profits.

It is called “Pearson and PALF. The Mutating Giant,” and it was written by Carolina Jünemann and Stephen Ball. It shines a much needed light on the international ambitions of the privatization movement and the commercializing of education as a consumer good. It is worth your time to read this important report. Arm yourself with knowledge and information.

It begins:

Education is big business. There are global, national and local businesses all seeking to profit from education and educational services. Increasingly, business, education policy and what it means to be educated are intimately intertwined.

Pearson is the world’s largest edu-business. Over the last 10 years Pearson has been involved in a process of re-invention, leading to its re-branding in 2014 as a ‘learning’ company with a vision, summed up in the strapline ‘always learning’, and with the aim of contributing to “the very highest standards in education around the world.”

This transition has at least two aspects to it. The first relates to Pearson’s repositioning of the brand as a social purpose company, one which portrays itself as having a positive, and measurable, impact on society, that of “help(ing) more people make measurable progress in their lives through learning”. The other relates to Pearson seeking to position itself as an increasingly powerful global policy actor in education – “to playing an active role in helping shape and inform the global debate around education and learning policy” (2012 annual report p. 39). But as Pearson is contributing to the global education policy debate, it is also reconfiguring the education policy problems that will then generate new markets for its products and services in the form of educational ‘solutions’.

In 2012, Michael Barber Pearson’s Chief Education Adviser, previously Head of the UK’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (2001-2005) launched PALF (the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund) as a for-profit venture fund to support and encourage the development and expansion of affordable learning school chains in developing countries.

The creation of PALF is an integral part of the repositioning of Pearson as a global company rather than one focused strongly on European and the US markets. It fits into Pearson’s business strategy of venturing into new markets (geographical) and uncovering new market opportunities, in this case, a new market segment (socio-economic), moving the company away from its traditional position as mid-market and high-end operator in education. PALF has been created to develop an unconventional market niche – the need and ambition of the poor in developing countries to give their children a good education.

The main focus of investment in PALF’s first phase of activity was for-profit Low Fee Private School (LFPS) chains. PALF’s first investment was in Omega Schools, a chain of Low Fee Private Schools operating in Ghana. Another is Affordable Private Education Centres (APEC), a chain of low-cost secondary schools in the Philippines. A third investment within the LFPS chain sector in 2014 is eAdvance, a company that manages the first South African blended learning low fee school chain called Spark schools.

However, PALF’s initial focus on Low Fee Private School chains has been inhibited by the absence of appropriate investment opportunities – sustainable, innovative businesses that could provide the expected financial returns. This has resulted in a recent shift in PALF’s scope to include a more general mix of investments and a broader focus on commercial education ‘solutions’ that, as Pearson explains, “might involve new business models, investing in new technology, or testing innovative partnerships or distribution channels” (Pearson plc, 2014, p. 56).

As part of this change of focus, in March 2014 PALF made an equity investment in Zaya Learning Labs and another in Avanti Learning Centres, a provider of college entrance exam preparation for students of low-income families through a pedagogic approach based on peer-to-peer learning and self-study, both in India. This kind of investment, as those in Ed-tech more generally, also facilitate, and illustrate, the increased used of non-teacher based or blended learning pedagogies.

An important aspect of PALF’s outcomes driven ‘demonstration’ work is related to the role of technology as an enabler of scale through delivery cost savings, that is, by reducing the reliance on qualified teachers as the primary medium of instruction. There are complex and over-lapping profit opportunities in the technology – teaching equation. This has profound implications for the role of teachers. The commitments and functions of the teacher are increasingly narrowed to include only those deemed necessary for enhancing performance and outcomes, at the same time as teachers are residualised and ‘de-professionalised’.

Sweden decided to open the floodgates of school privatization in 1992. Twenty-three years is a good long time to see the effects of vouchers and for-profit corporations running schools.   As this article in The Daily Kos shows, the results are not pretty. Test scores have fallen, segregation of all kinds has increased, one of the private corporations running schools went bankrupt, stranding students and wasting millions.

The gains are hard to discern.

Laura Chapman, a frequent contributor to the blog, comments here in response to an article in the Boston Globe about whether the Common Core was “killing” kindergarten:

THE BIG LIE: “The United States is falling behind other countries in the resource that matters most in the new global economy: human capital,” declared a 2008 report from the National Governors Association. Creating a common set of “internationally benchmarked” standards was seen as the best way to close the persistent achievement gaps between students of different races and between rich and poor school districts.”

THE BIG LIE: I have found only two international benchmarking documents in the early history of the Common Core. The first was in 1998 with comparisons of standards in two states and the math and science standards in Japan and standards available from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS). The second report in 2008. titled “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education,” was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and GE Foundations. The author was a professional writer of reports. The advisory committee included seven governors or former governors, CEOs at Intel and Microsoft, three senior state and large metro area education officials, three advocates for minority groups, one foundation, and five university faculty, only two of these scholars in education. The most important source of information was the data analytics expert at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). In this report, benchmarking is little more than a process of: (a) identifying the nations that score high on international tests, then (b) assuming the scores reflect higher expectations, and then (c) looking at some economic descriptors for those countries.

The result is a set of dubious inferences– high test scores and high standards are predicates for economic prosperity. Dubious should be written DUBIOUS, especially because this publication was rolled out with great fanfare in the midst of the 2008 crash of the world economy…for reasons that have no bearing on international test scores, no bearing on educational standards, no bearing on the nation’s children and teachers and public schools.

Nevertheless, “The executive summary (p.6) calls for the following:
Action 1: Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.

This is a very big lie. It is a dangerously misleading one when tossed into a discussion of kindergarten. There is no way to internationally benchmark standards or tests for every grade or subject because the meaning of “internationally benchmarked” is limited to test scores on international tests in at most three subjects, no international tests yet in kindergarten.

On top of those insistent misrepresentations from the nation’s governors and those involved in the whole Common Core Experiment to save the economy is it not strange that we find no demand at all for more and better knowledge of geography, cultural history including the arts, political history, and world languages–all of which might actually bear on functioning with savvy and grace on an international stage?

If the only or the prime value of our nation’s children and youth is economic, we are back to the same wretched outlook on children as that which existed before child labor laws. The Governors are still using this appalling rhetoric, treating the nation’s children and youth as more or less useful and productive for the economy. The same for their teachers. What will it take to get a reversal of this narrow and attitude that “It is perfectly OK to think of kids as economically worthless, or worthwhile, or somewhere in between?

The real causes of the so-called achievement gap are the result of thinking that test scores are objective…when they are not. It is the result of thinking that humans should all be thoroughly standardized to perform in the same way, at the same time, to the same level on a set of test questions that only predict scores on other tests. And those tests and scores are the marketing tools of choice for the unregulated testing industry.

Test scores have been a major weapon in the arsenal of federal and state policies designed to produce, reproduce, and not to reduce the huge disparities in income and opportunities in this nation and to distract attention from real fraud and abuse. Children are not responsible for the fate of the economy. They did not tank the economy in 2008. Nor did their teachers.

This nation is in desperate need for more ample education and for more generous views of humanity than has come from the National Governor’s Association, the Secretary of Education, corporate leaders, billionaires, and the press. The press has become too lazy. This piece about kindergarten does little more than recycle talking points from easy to find and ready-made sources.”

Pasi Sahlberg, the distinguished Finnish educator who has been in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the past two years, has written a terrific essay about the myths and fallacies that govern education policy today. One is that schools should be able to do more with less. This myth enables policymakers to cut the education budget, eliminating vital programs and services, while expecting schools to get better results. This is nonsense. It makes no sense.


Sahlberg writes:


Governments in Alberta and Finland are under economic pressure to reduce public spending as a result of failed national politics and unpredictable global economics. When government budgets get off track, bad news for education systems follow. The recently defeated Finnish government carried out huge cuts in education infrastructure. As a result, small schools were closed, teaching staff lost their jobs and morale among educators declined. Albertans are now facing similar threats.

When the going gets tough in our wealthy societies, the powers-that-be often choose quick fixes. In search of a silver bullet instead of sustained systemic improvement, politicians turn their eyes on teachers, believing that asking them to do more with less can compensate for inconvenient reductions in school resources. With super teachers, some of them say, the quality of education will improve even with lesser budgets. While some might suggest leadership is doing more with less, I would counter that real political leadership is about getting the appropriate resources in place to create a vibrant society.

“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. It plays a visible role in the education policies of nations where there is a wide range of teacher qualifications and therefore uneven teacher quality. Measuring teacher effectiveness has brought different methods of evaluation to the lives of teachers in many countries. The most controversial of them include what is known as value-added models1 that use data from standardized tests of students as part of the overall measure of the effect that a teacher has on student achievement.

Alberta and Finland are significantly better off than many other countries when it comes to teacher quality and teacher policies. In the United States, for example, there are nearly 2,000 different teacher preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Canada and Finland, only rigorously accredited academic teacher education programs are available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor Finland has fast-track options into teaching (although Teach for Canada is entering the game in Alberta with 40 new recruits in 2015/2016). Teacher quality in successful education systems is a result of careful quality control at the entry stage of teacher education rather than measuring the effectiveness of in-service teachers.


He then goes on to demolish other myths of our time, such as the myth that the teaching profession gets better by recruiting and accepting only “the best and brightest.”


Another myth is that super-teachers can overcome all obstacles. He reminds us that teaching is a team sport, a collaborative activity.


He writes:


The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team or musician in an orchestra: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports and performing arts offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit.


Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both the Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team U.S.A certainly exceeded the quality of its players.


The third, and related, fallacy is that teachers are the sole determinant of student achievement. He demonstrates that this is wrong. Other factors beyond the teachers’ control are even more important.


Sahlberg reminds his readers that the search for “super-teachers” is a dead end. Schools need to be well-resourced and to base their work on solid research, not hunches by politicians or economists or ideologues.

A reader posted this comment, in response to the story about Vietnamese students getting higher scores on PISA tests of math and science than U.S. students;

“According to the United Nations Statistics, only 77% of Vietnamese students are enrolled in secondary school, which means that the bottom 23% of test scores are eliminated for the Vietnamese case because those students are not in school to take the tests. (

“I taught in China in the late 1990’s and have since taught hundreds of Chinese nationals in the US. My Chinese students who come here to study have explained to me multiple times that a large percentage of Chinese students don’t make it into an academic high school and therefore never study for these tests. By the way, the students come here to escape their test-driven system.

“When I started teaching high school in the US in the late 1990’s I was struck by how willing my American students were to take risks, experiment, and involve themselves in class discussions. They were intellectual risk-takers compared to the college students I had in China, who I could barely get to speak because of their fear of being wrong and their lack of experience with class discussion. (this is not a cultural observation – it is an institutional one)

“My college students in the US now, all products of the NCLB era, are more similar to my students in China. They are completely grade-focused, fail to see the bigger picture in the issues we are studying, and lack creativity or initiative. Every time I think we have just had a meaningful discussion about something important, one will pipe up and say, “how are you going to grade this?”

“I am tired of data and people’s unfailing belief that it there is a number attached to something, that means it is true. I have a master’s degree in Economics and was basically taught how to “massage the data,” which basically means make it say whatever your grant needs it say.

“I just watched a teacher spend 5 minutes yelling at a third grader about how to spell the word orange. Her face was red with anger and she was shouting, “is that the sound it makes?” No doubt this teacher was thinking of the student’s ability to make the grade on her upcoming exam and how the teacher might lose her job if she was rated ineffective.

“We have gone mad and our children are paying the price.”

Daniel Katz pulls together the events of the recent past and concludes that this has been a wasted era of school policy.

Both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are based on economic ideologies about incentives and sanctions that don’t apply to education. Both have interacted to distort the goals of schooling and both ignore individual differences and needs. We now know–and should always have known– that children are not molten pieces of lead waiting to be shaped or widgets waiting for commands.

Only one sector has thrived: the charter school industry.

Will we continue on this failed path or change direction?

In a newly released summary of PISA test scores, students in Vietnam had higher test scores than their 15-year-old peers in the U.S. and most European Union nations.

For some in the U.S. media, this will set off alarm bells, produce hand-wringing, and provoke fears of “a Sputnik moment,” arrived again.

A Vietnamese newspaper reported:

“Vietnam ranked 12th out of 76 economies in a new global education survey, overtaking the US and many EU countries, international media reported Wednesday.

“The rankings by the economic think tank OECD were based on 15-year-olds’ performance in maths and science tests. The US placed 28th while most of the EU, including Denmark, Sweden and the UK were outside the top 15.

“Asian economies dominated the top positions. Singapore took the top place, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, BBC reported.”

Andreas Schleicher of the OECD said the survey showed that Asian nations excel because they have excellent teachers with high expectations. “There’s a lot of rigor, a lot of focus and coherence,” he told BBC.” And he said that the test scores predicted future economic growth.

However, Vietnam’s deputy education commissioner took issue with Schleicher’s assessment of the PISA results.

“Nguyen Vinh Hien, Deputy Minister of Education and Training, told Tuoi Tre (youth) newspaper on Friday that the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, does not assess students’ overall competence…

“Even though PISA’s 2012 results, announced early this week, ranked Vietnam over many wealthy western countries, including the US, in math and science, “we have to be honest and admit that if fully assessed, Vietnamese students’ capacity is still poor,” Hien said….

“Dr. Giap Van Duong also wrote in the newspaper that compared to “the four pillars of education” prescribed by UNESCO–learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be–PISA targets only a small part of the first pillar.
Duong holds doctorates in physics and used to work with universities in England and Austria.

“He said PISA tests were limited because they use 15-year-olds as their subjects. At that age, students are still immature and their knowledge is far from meeting the demand of practical fields like business, administration, culture, and arts, he said.

“If the test targeted older people such as 20-year-old university students or 30-year-olds who are working, Vietnam’s results would “definitely” be much lower, according to Duong.

“In fact, many Vietnamese students fail to land a job after graduation. When they study overseas, many have difficulties in meeting the requirements of advanced education systems like team-work, problem solving and creativity, he said.”

“Duong went on to quote the Asian Productivity Organization’s 2012 report as saying that Vietnamese people’s productivity is about 20 times lower than that of American people.”

Duong added:

“Vietnamese education’s focus is on learning to pass exams. The whole system operates to serve only one purpose: exams.”

“Students here take exams to enroll in the first grade, the sixth-grade, the tenth-grade, and then universities, and every exam is “tense” and “competitive,” the scholar said.

“The tradition of learning to pass exams” is typical of Confucian education systems and is also found in other Asian countries like China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, he said.
All these countries ranked high in PISA tests, although their development is on par with or lower than that of the US and western countries.

“This indicated that the tradition probably affected the tests’ results, Duong said.

“He noted that among countries with Confucian traditions, Vietnam ranked the lowest, so there was no reason to be happy about the country’s ranking.”

No doubt in the U.S., groups promoting the Common Core, charters, and vouchers will take this summary as new evidence that American public education is failing to produce global competitors and that we need more rigor, more testing, and more standardization. Secretary Dumcan may make a statement saying these results are a “wake-up call” for Americans. As University of Oregon scholar Yong Zhao said at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago last month, Duncan gets more wake-up calls than anyone he knows but never wakes up.

The international tests are vastly overrated. It is not clear that the test-taking skills of 15-year-olds predict anything at all about the future of the economy. When the first international test of math was offered in 1964, 12 nations took it. The U.S. came in next to last in eighth grade and dead last in twelfth grade. Yet over the next fifty years, the U.S. economy outperformed the other 11 nations. The test scores predicted nothing at all.

As the Vietnamese deputy commissioner said, PISA measures only one dimension: test-taking skills. Whatever value the standardized tests have is overshadowed by the collateral damage they do to the quality of education and to the standardizing of young minds.

What matters most today is the liberation of minds to be creative, imaginative, compassionate, and collegial. The world is in a mess and we don’t need more fiercely competitive, me-first people. We need thoughtful and knowledgable people who know how to resolve conflicts. Above all, we need the one quality that the international tests can’t measure: Wisdom.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education who blogs at


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