Archives for category: International

Since there is always a lot of chatter about what international tests scores mean, I invited David Berliner to share his views. Berliner is one of our nation’s pre-eminent scholars of education.



Dear Diane,


A few weeks ago you asked me a question about recent PISA test results and the role that is played by poverty in the scores of the USA and other countries. As I understand it PISA doesn’t compute the poverty-test score relationships in quite the same way we might in the USA, but the results they get are similar to what we get.


Investigations of the poverty-test score relationships in PISA 2012 (OECD, 2013) relied on two variables, each of which was a composite. First, they used a family social class measure that was supposed to capture the income and cultural resources of a family. They combined three factors to get one composite index of family social standing: the highest occupational level of either parent; the highest educational level of the parents; and home possessions (particularly, books in the home). This family index of social class standing is not income, and it is also not always a good measure of social class standing (for example, think of highly educated immigrants who hold low wage jobs). Nevertheless, it is this composite indicator of social standing that was used to examine the scores each nation attained in tests of mathematics, science, or reading. The relationships between social standing and achievement were quite similar on all three tests of subject matter.


When we ask what percent of the variance in US students’ PISA scores was accounted for by this composite of family social class variables, the answer is around 20% (OECD, 2013, Fig ll.2.3). Twenty percent explained variation in PISA scores that arise from differences in socioeconomic factors related to families is low enough to suggest that “poverty is no excuse,” or that, “demography is not destiny.” Such maximssound reasonable because it appears at first that about 80% of the variation in student test scores is still to be accounted for. Thus, if we just had great teachers and great school leaders every child would be successful. But this interpretation is completely misleading.


For example, PISA also informs us that the test score difference attributable to moving up or down one place on the social class measure is 39 points. That works out to nearly one year of schooling on the PISA scale. So, if in the recent great recession your family was hurt and you move down the social class scale one unit, the prediction from PISA data is that children of such families are likely, eventually, to be scoring one full year lower than they might have had their family just stayed at their more advantaged social level. So the “20% variance accounted for” estimate is not a trivial figure when we look at the score points that are involved in having only slightly different social class standing. The data convincingly suggests that social status variables are quite powerful and not quite as easily overcome as the maxims we hear that suggest otherwise.


This becomes even more apparent with some additional information collected by the PISA designers. The 2012 study used information obtained from school principals about the school attended by each child in the sample. Thus, schools were categorized on the basis of the wealth and the poverty of the student body, along with the housing patterns and values in the school catchment areas, the qualities of the teachers assigned to the schools the children attend, the funding of the schools, and a number of other school level variables that are correlated strongly with the incomes of students’ families. This is the second large composite variable used in understanding the relationship of poverty to PISA test scores.


The relevant data is given as the percent of the test score variance that is attributable to differences between schools because of the population they draw. Together the family and the school level variables related to social class account for 58% of the variance we see between schools. This is quite close to the data we usually cite in the USA, namely, that about 60% of the variance we see among schools is the result of outside-of-school factors, not inside-of-school factors. (It is generally agreed that in the USA we often have 20% of the variance in test scores accounted for by school variables, maybe half of which is a teacher effect. So, in the USA, the outside-of-school variables count for about 3 times the effect of the inside-of-school variables, and they count for about 6 times the effect of teachers on the aggregate scores of classes and schools.)


Thus the international data support the estimate of poverty’s effects on test scores that we have obtained from studying internal US test data. In fact, the 2012 PISA data provides a similar estimate to what was found in the Coleman report of the 1960s. The historical record, therefore, tells us that if we want to fix schools that are not now performing well on achievement tests, we might do well to work on the out-of-school factors that influence educational achievement, and not put all our efforts into trying to improve inside-of-the school factors, as the President and Secretary of Education continue to do. Our elected officials and numerous misguided individuals and corporations keep failing to interpret the extant data in a credible way.


To those who say “poverty is no excuse,” I would then ask how they account for poverty’s potency in explaining so much of the variance in achievement test scores in the USA and elsewhere? Indeed, poverty may not be an excuse for poor performance, but it sure is a quite reasonable hypothesis about the origins of student, school, and school district differences in achievement test scores. And, of course, it may not be poverty per se that is the causal factor in the low achievement seen on so many different tests. Rather, it may be poverty’s sequelae that is the culprit. That is, the wealth of families determines such things as housing, and it is housing that determines the types of neighbors one has, the mental health and crime rates in your neighborhood, the availability of role models for children, the number of moves a family makes while children are young, the stability of family relationships, low birth weight, teen pregnancy rates, Otitus Media rates in childhood, and so forth. Discussing “poverty” and “achievement” is a simple way of expressing the relationships we find between dozens of the sequelae associated with poverty and the many forms of achievement valued by our society.


PISA provides still more evidence that poverty is a strong factor in shaping students’ lives, supporting the contention that it is really quite common for demography to determine destiny. PISA looked at “resilient students,” those who are in the bottom quartile of the social class distribution, but in the top quartile in the achievement test distribution. These are 15-year-olds who seem to beak the shackles imposed by family and neighborhood poverty. In the USA, about 6% of the children do that. So 94% of youth born into or raised in that lower quartile of family culture and resources do not make it into the top quartile of school achievers. Admittedly, poverty is hard to overcome in most countries. But why is it that Belgium, Canada, Finland, Turkey, and Portugal, among many others, produce at least 40% more “resilient kids” than do we? Could it be because the class lines are more hardened here in the USA? Whatever the cause, given these data, the mantra that “Poverty is no Excuse” seems weak, and easily countered by the more rational statement that comes directly from the PISA data, namely, that family poverty and its sequelae severely limit the life chances of most children in the lower quartiles, quintiles, and deciles on measures of social class standing.


More evidence of this is also found in the PISA data. Housing patterns seemed to matter a lot in determining scores on the PISA 2012 assessments. There were striking performance differences observed between students in schools with socially advantaged students and those in schools with socially disadvantaged schools. Students attending socioeconomically advantaged schools in OECD countries outscore those in disadvantaged schools, on average, by more than 104 points in mathematics! This is of course quite a common finding in the USA where Jonathan Kozol once described our housing patterns as “Apartheid-Lite.” We should note, too, that a reanalysis of the Coleman report by Borman and Dowling (2010) broke out the variance in test scores attributable to individual background (like variable 1 in PISA) and the social composition of the schools (like variable 2 in PISA). Borman and Dowling say their reanalysis provides “very clear and compelling evidence that going to a high-poverty school or a highly segregated African American school has a profound effect on a student’s achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of his or her individual poverty or minority status. Specifically, both the racial/ethnic and social class composition of a student’s school are more than 1 3/4 times more important than a student’s individual race/ethnicity or social class for understanding educational outcomes. In dramatic contrast to previous analyses of the Coleman data, these findings reveal that school context effects dwarf the effects of family background.”


Many other nations have the same pattern of housing and schooling that we do: wages determine housing, and housing determines the characteristics of the student body and the quality of the school attended by children. This all suggests that there is a lot of support for the statement that demography, in too many instances, really does determine destiny.


The clearest case of this comes from analyses of other, earlier PISA data, by Doug Willms (2006). His analysis suggests that if children of average SES attended one of their own nations high performing schools, or instead attended one of their own nations’ low performing schools, the difference at age 15, the age of PISA testing, would be equivalent to about 4 grade levels. Thus a 10th grader of average SES who can attend a high performing school is likely to score at about the 12th grade level (a grade level approximation from PISA data). And if that same child were to attend a low performing school, he or she would score at about the 8th grade level. It’s the same hypothetical child we are talking about, but with two very different lives to be lead as a function of the makeup of the schools attended. It is not the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, the computers available, or any number of other variables that are often discussed when issues of school quality come up. Instead, the composition of the school seems to be the most powerful factor in changing the life course for this hypothetical, average child. PISA data from an earlier assessment in Australia documents the same phenomena (Perry and McConney, 2010). In science, the score of a low income student in a low income school averages 455. But the score of similar low income students at schools that serve upper income children is over half a standard deviation higher—512. And a high income student in a school serving low income students scores 555, but high income students enrolled in schools with high income peers score half a standard deviation higher—607. Note what is most impressive here: the low income student in a school with low income families scores 455, while a high income student in a school with high income families scores 607. That is about a standard deviation and a half apart! These are 15 year olds that are worlds apart in both housing patterns, school quality, and in measures of cognitive ability. In short, PISA data overwhelmingly supports the belief that demography and destiny are closely related, a terrible embarrassment for democratic countries that pay so much lip service to the principal of equality of opportunity. Apparently, the chant that “poverty is no excuse” can easily become a reason for doing nothing about poverty’s effects on many social variables that consistently, and cross nationally, affect both school outcomes and life chances. Horatio Alger may have never been fully believable, but a few decades ago it looks like Horatio simply died, mostly unnoticed.




Borman, G. D. & Dowling, M. (2010). Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Data. Teachers College Record, 112 (5), 1201–1246.


OECD (2013), PISA 2012 Results: Excellence Through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (Volume II), PISA, OECD Publishing.


Perry, L. B. & McConney, A. (2010). Does the SES of the school matter? An

examination of socioeconomic status and student achievement using PISA

2003. Teachers College Record 112 (4), 1137–1162.


Willms, J. D. (2006). Learning divides: Ten policy questions about the performance and equity of schools and schooling systems. Montreal, Canada: UNESCO Institute for Statistics.





In this fourth installment in his series of posts criticizing PISA, Yong Zhao examines the claim that low-income children in China outperformed the children of professional in the rest of the developed world.

He begins with the shock value of the headlines, which are guaranteed to stir nationalistic fervor:

“China’s poorest beat our best pupils”—The Telegraph (UK), 2-17-2014
“Children of Shanghai cleaners better at math than kids of Israeli lawyers”—Haaretz (Israel), 2-19-2014
“Cleaners’ children in China beat kids of US, UK professionals at maths: study”—NDTV (India), 2-18-2014
“Children of Chinese janitors outscore wealthy Canadians in global exams”—The Globe and Mail (Canada), 2-19- 2014

He writes:

“These are some of the most recent sensational headlines generated by PISA with a 4-page report entitled Do parents’ occupations have an impact on student performance released in February 2014. These headlines exemplify the secret of PISA’s great success as a masterful illusionist: effective misdirection of attention by exploiting human instinct for competition.

“From the start, the entire PISA enterprise has been designed to capitalize on the intense nationalistic concern for global competitiveness by inducing strong emotional responses from the unsuspecting public, gullible politicians, and sensation-seeking media. Virtually all PISA products, particularly its signature product—the league tables, are intended to show winners and losers, in not only educational policies and practices of the past, but more important, in capacity for global competition in the future. While this approach has made PISA an extremely successful global enterprise, it has misled the world down a path of self-destruction, resulting in irrational policies and practices that are more likely to squander precious resources and opportunities than enhancing capacity for future prosperity.”

I won’t summarize his arguments but I will share his conclusion:

“The bottom line: Until OECD-PISA became the only employer in the world with PISA scores as the only qualification, I would not suggest lawyers and doctors in the U.S., U.K., or any nation to replace your children’s activities in music, arts, sports, dancing, debates, and field trips with math tutoring. For the same reason, it is not time yet for schools in developed countries to close your swimming pools, burn your musical instruments, end museums visits, or fire your art teachers.”

Yong Zhao, who was born and educated in China, is a sharp critic of standardized testing. This article is the third in a series in which he criticizes PISA for misleading the world and promoting standardization and uniformity.

In this article, he reviews the many critiques of PISA by testing expert in other actions.

He writes:

“From the start, the entire PISA enterprise has been designed to capitalize on the intense nationalistic concern for global competitiveness by inducing strong emotional responses from the unsuspecting public, gullible politicians, and sensation-seeking media. Virtually all PISA products, particularly its signature product—the league tables, are intended to show winners and losers, in not only educational policies and practices of the past, but more important, in capacity for global competition in the future. While this approach has made PISA an extremely successful global enterprise, it has misled the world down a path of self-destruction, resulting in irrational policies and practices that are more likely to squander precious resources and opportunities than enhancing capacity for future prosperity.”

He reviews the OECD’s claim that the children of factory workers in Shanghai had higher scores than the children of professionals in the U.S. and finds it misleading.

Then he adds the “so what” factor:

“Even if PISA had done everything properly and indeed children of factory workers in Shanghai scored better than children of lawyers in the U.K. and the U.S., it does not necessarily mean they are better educated or prepared for the modern society, considering the limitation of PISA test scores as I discussed in Part 3 of this series. It could mean something entirely different: while PISA scores can be achieved with little resources and intense repetition of narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills, what truly matters—talent diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurialism—cannot. The multiplication table can be learned with a piece of paper, but it would be difficult to force anyone to play the piano without a piano. Everyone can be forced to memorize Hamlet, but it is unlikely to force anyone to invent the iPhone.”

In this post, Yong Zhao chastises Marc Tucker for admiring Chinese authoritarian education methods. Tucker, he says, praises China for its high standards and excellent exams, but he is wrong. This is part 2 of Yong Zhao’s critique of PISA. He calls this one “Gloryifying Educational Authoritarianism.”. His first was called “How Does PISA Put the Word At Risk? Romanticizing Misery.”

The secret of China’s high scores, Zhao says, is constant test prep and cheating.

Zhao writes:

“Tucker is wrong on all counts, at least in the case of China. Students may work hard, but they do not necessarily take tough courses. They take courses that prepare them for the exams or courses that only matter for the exams. Students do not move on to meet a high standard, but to prepare for the exams. The exams can be gamed, and have often been. Teachers guess possible items, companies sell answers and wireless cheating devices to students[1], and students engage in all sorts of elaborate cheating. In 2013, a riot broke because a group of students in the Hubei Province were stopped from executing the cheating scheme their parents purchased to ease their college entrance exam[2]. “An angry mob of more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent its rage, smashing cars and chanting: ‘We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat,’” read the story in the U.K.-based newspaper The Telegraph.

“Tucker’s assertion, that “because the exams are of very high quality, they cannot be ‘test prepped,’” is completely untrue. Chinese schools exist to test prep. Every class, every teacher, every school is about preparing for the exams. In most schools, the last year of high school is reserved exclusively for test preparation. No new content is taught. All students do, the entire year, is take practice tests and learn test-taking skills. Good schools often help the students exhaust all possible ways specific content might show up in an exam. Schools that have earned a reputation for preparing students for college exams have published their practice test papers and made a fortune. A large proportion of publications for children in China are practice test papers.”

Worse, Zhao asserts, the standardization crushes imagination and ingenuity. Everyone is taught to think alike, squelching creativity.

This is definitely worth reading in full, especially if you happen to work in Congress or the U.S. Department of Education.

This comment came from a teacher in Mexico who read the post by a charter school teacher in a “no excuses” charter school. .

She writes:

“I am a kindergarten teacher in Mexico we belong to the so called third world and what you have described as a bad experience is what is happening here too. This kind of teaching has led us to a lack of values and a general violent citizenship. This is a wrong way, it is like going backwards. If you as a country start teaching your kids as third world countries or as dictatorships do you are in danger of losing the progress and the benefits of a civilized society where human rights and human development will be lost. Please keep on fighting to support your public schools so we can have a role model to follow; do not give up what you have achieved, give us some hope by standing for the joy of learning, for the respect of children, for preserving their integrity and dignity, do not let go, please, keep on leading the way so we can refer to you when we try to explain to our authorities what school should be.”

“Please look at this teacher you will love it though it is in spanish. Performance para repensar el rol del docente – El…:″

In the past few days, the media has barraged us with stories about how American students rank on PISA’s “problem-solving” test. We were told that they scored better than average yet still behind other nations.


But what is the test and what does it mean?


Andy Hargreaves of Boston College, co-author with Michael Fullan of Professional Capital, tweeted to me an article in the British press that contains examples taken from the test.


As I read the questions, I am reminded of standardized test questions I have seen that pop up on tests of reason and logic or on IQ tests.


Why don’t we administer the PISA problem-solving test to our state legislators and publish their scores? Or to the top officials at the U.S. Department of Education?


Now that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?



This is not an April Fools’ joke.

Russian troops are massed on the borders of Ukraine.

People are shopping in the fish market in Odessa, going about their daily life.

Then a flash mob appears.

What do you think they do?

Why do these notes always speak of hope? Why do they stir us so?

Why do we hear this music and think of a better world?

Thank you, Andrew Sullivan, for posting this beautiful scene.

Dr. Hunter O’Hara and Dr. Merrie Tinkersley visited Finland, and this is what they learned:

“American Educators Find Surprises in Helsinki and at Home in the United States”

On the basis of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, Finnish public schools have ranked at the top, or very near the top in the world in the areas of mathematics, reading and science. Seven teacher education seniors and three teacher education faculty at The University of Tampa traveled to Finland to determine the nature of Finnish success with public education. We visited three public schools; 1) grades K-8, 2) grades 1-6, and 3) grades 9-12. We also visited Metropolia University and the University of Helsinki. At U.H. we had an extended conversation with a teacher education professor.

Prior to our visit, we understood that Finland prides itself for creating school equality across the nation. During our visit, we felt we were able to develop a realistic perception of Finnish public schools. We also spoke with Finnish students, teachers, administrators and parents. We expected to see extraordinarily dynamic, innovative teachers and pedagogy. We anticipated being dazzled with Finnish approaches to instruction, teaching strategies and techniques……such was not the case.

We observed examples of group inquiry/investigation, interdisciplinary thematic instruction, content-driven flexible conversation as well as the use of film for instructional purposes. Approaches such as these are not novel and are modeled, taught and practiced in multiple teacher education courses and internships at The University of Tampa. In terms of teaching strategies, nothing we viewed seemed visionary, extraordinary or new. Rather we noted that some teachers were using very traditional methods such a lecture/question and answer.

What Is Different About Finnish Schools?

Surprisingly for several of us, we did not see technology used in classrooms at all. We saw no use of standardized testing. In fact, we verified that there is no standardized testing in Finland unless the classroom teacher requests such a test for her or his own diagnostic purposes; but never for accountability. Progress is monitored, but the design and timing of exams are left up to the classroom teacher. We saw an egalitarian curriculum that includes substantial coursework in the fine arts, social sciences, the humanities and physical education in addition to mathematics, science and reading. High quality learner-created artwork adorns classrooms and all hallways. Not unlike the United States just a few decades ago, pianos are found in elementary classrooms.

We found that learning environments are noncompetitive. Instead of competition, the focus is on group learning pursuits and class multilogues. Physical education courses focus on fitness rather than competitive gaming. Finnish students do not even compete in inter-school athletics.

Finnish Culture and The Classroom

We did see significant cultural identifiers that directly impact the functioning of the school community and learning pursuits. Finnish learners are afforded a great deal of autonomy and freedom. Correspondingly, significant levels of maturity are expected of learners. Learners are trusted and expected to complete tasks without policing. Starting in first grade, students are expected to serve themselves at lunch and breakfast (free of charge) and to clear after themselves- regardless of their developmental level. Learners spend a significant amount of time in the out of doors pursuing projects and play regardless of temperatures (for Finns, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing). They know how to manage their frigid climate well. Learners act autonomously on a frequent basis and are free to take their time during transitions and while they are engaged in various projects. For example, there is no lining up and single -file –silent- walking between locations at the elementary level.

Just as cold temperatures predominate the weather, mutual trust predominates Finnish human interaction. As teachers trust learners, learners trust teachers to have their best interests at heart. School administrators trust teachers and learners, and Finnish communities trust teachers and principals to do their jobs well. Just as teachers trust learners, the Finnish government trusts Finnish teachers to structure facilitate and maintain successful learning environments. One principal shared, “I trust that teachers are going to do their own work in their own way.” Another principal indicated to us, “The focus is on trust, instead of accountability, and there are no high stakes tests. What happens in the classroom is up to the teacher.” Schools are never ranked and teachers track their own students. Finns trust their teacher credentialing process. Unlike many United States charter schools, Finns who have no credentials in education do not meddle in school affairs. Due to the prestige and free teacher preparation at the universities, Finland is able to admit only ten percent of the applicants into the teacher preparation programs. The Finnish government does not police schools in terms of learner performance, and the national standards for the various content areas are a succinct few pages.

All Schools Equal in Finland

There are no charter schools in Finland, no school vouchers, no “grading” of schools and no magnet schools. Unlike the United States, the intent in Finland is to assure that all schools are of equal quality. Again, that quality certainly does not owe it’s success to test driven instruction and curricula, nor does it have to do with “teacher accountability” campaigns as they have been called in the United States. Such approaches would have no place in a trust -centered nation like Finland. As has been made clear by their world ranking, Finnish schools are successful without the above questionable practices. Finnish teachers are highly respected and their prestige ranks with that of doctors and lawyers. Again, Finnish teacher preparation is paid for by the Finnish government. All teachers are prepared traditionally through a five year university preparation program. There is no alternative teacher certification in Finland.

Finnish teachers are fully unionized and they earn decent wages. We learned from faculty and administrators in Finland that there is no place for a scripted curriculum if administrators hire well qualified, traditionally prepared teachers. Moreover to be effective in their profession, teachers must be afforded professional autonomy and academic freedom. Many of these essential, teaching success-inducing components have been eroded in the United States over the past few decades.

Naturally, as educators we found Finnish schools to be very attractive, and yet we never lost our faith in the American public schools that had prepared us- the very schools to which we had also dedicated our professional lives. Quite plainly, the successes we saw in Finland should occur in the United States. Not only that, we were made aware that the entire design and implementation of the Finnish school system was based on American education research! As a matter of fact, the United States generates eighty percent of the research in education worldwide. If American education research is a good enough to base the design of one of the very most successful public education systems in the world, why is it not good enough to use in the United States? Furthermore, if we had the answers in the United States, why were we traveling to Finland to find our own answers?

Return to the United States

Not long after we returned to the United States, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools was published. Diane Ravitch’s carefully researched book contradicts the rabid negative mythology that surrounds American Public Education. Ravitch is a research Professor of Education at New York University and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by President Bill Clinton. In short, she reveals that American Public School high school dropouts are at an all-time low, high school graduation rates are at an all-time high and that test scores are at their highest point ever recorded. In fact, when compared as a nation “the states of Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado … ranked among the top-performing nations in the world” (p. 67). Further, “if it were a nation, Florida would have been tied for second in the world with Russia, Finland, and Singapore” on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (p.67). Not only that, “American students in schools with low poverty-the schools where less than ten percent of the students were poor- had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia.” (p. 64) Most significantly, Ravitch confirms that the single biggest source of low academic achievement is poverty. Poverty impacts learning in dramatic ways and for learners to transcend that barrier, they must first overcome the overwhelming and debilitating effects of poor nutrition, poor health care, inadequate clothing and housing. Child poverty in Finland is 5.3 % but child poverty in the United States 23.1 % according to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Report Card 10; the highest rate of poverty amongst all of the advanced nations in the world. It should also be noted that unlike the United States, many PISA high scoring nations do not school learners in an egalitarian fashion past certain ages; which is to say that, in those nations, by the time students take the PISA, underperforming students have already been “weeded out” or eliminated. Ravitch is justified when she asserts that American public education is an extraordinary success.

In light of Ravitch’s meticulous research, one can only wonder why seemingly sinister forces have conspired to stigmatize American Public Schools. Not to be forgotten, however, is the role that American Public Schools have played in the success of this nation. When we act to stigmatize or to condemn that bulwark, we are actually working to condemn ourselves. If the American people allow their public schools to be undermined by powers that have only their greed and self interest in mind, we do so at our own peril. If the day arrives when public schools are lost, the middle class will surely be lost as well. We must all value, support and protect American Public Education.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Andy Hargreaves, Pasi Sahlberg, and Dennis Shirley are noted for their scholarly, articulate, and outspoken opposition to the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which is spreading like a virus.

Now, one of the chief exponents of GERM–(Sir) Michael Barber–has delivered a report to Boston informing the business community that the schools are mediocre and need a strong infusion of privatization and (of course) more testing. (Sir) Michael Barber previously worked for McKinsey, and he is now the thought leader of that esteemed pusher of testing, Pearson.

Hargreaves, Sahlberg, and Shirley write here about why (Sir) Michael Barber is wrong. (Sir) Michael Barber made his reputation as a creator of the UK’s system of standards and assessments; because of his love of “targets,” he is known as Mr. Deliverology when he is not known as (Sir) Michael Barber. However, the authors point out that there has been no educational renaissance in England and that Massachusetts scores higher on the targets than the nation that last took (Sir) Michael Barber’s advice.


They write:


What’s wrong with the report? First, its grudging acknowledgement of positive educational outcomes in Massachusetts and grim portrait of the state’s shortfalls have little to do with the facts. Massachusetts is the leading state in the United States on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It is the only state in the United States with an “A” grade in the highly regarded Quality Counts 2014 State Report Card. It is also one of the world’s top-performing systems on a number of international assessments. Its rate of recent progress may be slower than some countries, but they’ve started from farther behind — Massachusetts literally has less room for improvement. To view the state’s school system as suffering from “complacency,” as the report claims, confounds all the findings of United States and international research on school achievement.
Moreover, the report draws many of its recommendation from the United Kingdom, where its lead author, Michael Barber, once worked as an advisor on education to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. England has made massive investments in “academies,” similar to government-supported charter schools here. It has explored various ways to prepare new teachers outside of a university setting. There have been targets and tests galore. Yet, results from the 2012 Program of International Assessment put England merely at the international average, 499, compared to Massachusetts students’ score of 524. For Bay State policymakers to follow England’s lead in education would be like the Red Sox taking coaching tips from the lowly Kansas City Royals.


Yong Zhao posted the first of five blogs about the faulty claims of PISA, the international test that false reformers love to cite as evidence that our schools are failing and our kids don’t work hard enough. The five blog posts are drawn from Zhao’s much awaited new book. If you have not read his other books, order them now. Catching Up or Leading the Way and World Class Learners. You will enjoy them.

Zhao calls PISA “one of the most destructive forces in education today. It creates illusory models of excellence, romanticizes misery, glorifies educational authoritarianism, and most serious, directs the world’s attention to the past instead of pointing to the future. In the coming weeks, I will publish five blog posts detailing each of my “charges,” adapted from parts of my book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education.”

In this post, Zhao demonstrates one of the misleading claims made by Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA.

Zhao writes:

“Andreas Schleicher has on many occasions promoted the idea that Chinese students take responsibilities for their own learning, while in “many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves.” France is his prime example: “More than three-quarters of the students in France … said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky.” Students in Shanghai felt just the opposite, believing that “they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed.” Schleicher maintains that this difference in attitude contributed to the gap between Shanghai, ranked first, and France, ranked 25th.”

Zhao shows by citing PISA rankings that this claim by Schleicher does not withstand scrutiny. It is false.

He writes:

“What’s intriguing is that the countries whose students are least likely to blame their teachers all have a more authoritarian cultural tradition than the countries whose students are most likely to blame their teachers. On the first list, Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Shanghai-China, Japan, and Viet Nam share the Confucian cultural tradition. And although Japan and Korea are now considered full democracies, the rest of the countries on the list are not[3]. In contrast, the list of countries with the highest percentage of students blaming their teachers for their failures ranked much higher in the democracy index. Norway ranked first; Sweden ranked second, and Switzerland was number seven. With the single exception of Italy, all 10 countries where students were most likely to blame their teachers ranked above 30 on the Democracy Index (and Italy ranked 32nd).

“One conclusion to draw from this analysis: students in more authoritarian education systems are more likely to blame themselves and less likely to question the authority—the teacher—than students in more democratic educational systems. An authoritarian educational system demands obedience and does not tolerate questioning of authority. Just like authoritarian parents [2], authoritarian education systems have externally defined high expectations that are not necessarily accepted by students intrinsically but require mandatory conformity through rigid rules and sever punishment for noncompliance. More important, they work very hard to convince children to blame themselves for failing to meet the expectations. As a result, they produce students with low confidence and low self-esteem.

“On the PISA survey of students’ self-concept in math, students in Japan, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Viet Nam, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, and Shanghai-China had the lowest self-concepts in the world, despite their high PISA math scores[4]. A high proportion of students in these educational systems worried that they “will get poor grades in mathematics.” More than 70% of students in Korea, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Viet Nam, Shanghai-China, and Hong Kong-China—in contrast to less than 50% in Austria, United States, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands—“agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they worry about getting poor grades in math[5].”

And he concludes:

“In other words, what Schleicher has been praising as Shanghai’s secret to educational excellence is simply the outcome of an authoritarian education.

“As discussed previously, Chinese education has been notoriously authoritarian for thousands of years. In an authoritarian system, the ruler and the ruling class (previously the emperors; today, the government) have much to gain when people believe it is their own effort, and nothing more, that makes them successful. No difference in innate abilities or social circumstances matters as long as they work hard. If they cannot succeed, they only have themselves to blame. This is an excellent and convenient way for the authorities to deny any responsibility for social equity and justice, and to avoid accommodating differently talented people. It is a great ploy that helped the emperors convince people to accept the inequalities they were born into and obey the rules. It was also designed to give people a sense of hope, no matter how slim, that they can change their own fate by being indoctrinated through the exams.”

Our policymakers wish our students and teachers would think, act, study, and behave like their counterparts in Singapore and Korea. But first they will have to change America’s irreverent, anti-authoritarian culture. Good luck with that!

Comedy Central, are you listening?


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