A letter written by State University of Albany’s Heinz Dieter Meyer and educator Katie Zahedi protested the negative effects of PISA on education goals because of its emphasis on standardized tests and international competition. The letter has been translated into many languages and collected hundreds of signatures from scholars and educators around the world.

The letter was addressed to Andreas Schleicher of OECD, who is director of PISA.

If you wish to sign the letter, it is here.

Dr. Schleicher responded promptly to the letter, saying it was based on “false claims,” and that it has not caused “short term fixes,” as a way for nations to raise their national rankings. Of course, some Americans would say that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was driven by the goal of international competition. On this ground, both programs were failures, leading to more testing, more measures to rank and rate students, teachers, and schools.

Since it is impossible to get a unified response from the many who have signed it, Dr. Meyer has invited signatories to submit their own responses, which he will make available on a website.

For now, the best available response to Dr. Schleicher is an article (part of a series) about how PISA has harmed education reform in the nations of East Asia, the putative “winners” of the PISA contest. Zhao calls his series “”How does PISA Put the World at Risk?”

Zhao says if he were a conspiracy theorist, he would think that PISA is a western plot to keep China trapped in an antiquated system, and unable to try the education reforms that would usher in a new era of creativity and entrepreneurship.

“He writes:

“Such a citizenry is urgently needed for China’s successful transition from a labor-intensive economy to one that relies on innovation, a transition China must make for its future development. The Chinese exam-oriented education has long been recognized as the culprit for limiting China’s capacity for producing creative and diverse talents. Just as China’s education reforms began to touch the core of its traditional education—the gaokao or College Entrance Exam and the wide use of testing at all levels of education, PISA announced that the Chinese education is the best in the world. And the exam system, including the gaokao, is glorified as a major contributor to China’s success, making it difficult for the Chinese to continue the battle against testing.”

He writes further:

“If I expanded the conspiracy theory, I could say that PISA is a plot to disrupt all Eastern Asian countries’ serious efforts to develop an education system that cultivates confident, creative, diverse, and happy students. For example, PISA “played a role in the decision to reverse, at least in part, the yutori reform launched at the beginning of the decade,” writes a 2011 OECD document[2]. Yutori kyoiku (roughly translated “relaxed education” or education with some freedom) was a major education reform movement started in the 1980s in Japan. “The yutori reform was based on an emerging consensus that the school system was too rigid and that a new approach was needed to encourage creativity,” observes the OECD document[3]. The major changes included reduction in school days and a 30% cut in the school curriculum. “In addition, the government relaxed grading practices and introduced “integrated learning classes” without textbooks in an effort to help students think independently and reduce the importance of rote learning” [4]. The changes were announced in 1998 and implemented in 2002. “The ultimate desire was to instill in students ‘a zest for learning.’”[5]

“In 2003, Japan’s PISA rankings fell, resulting in a public panic over Japan’s decline in international academic standing. Opponents of the yutori reform seized the moment and blamed the reform for the decline. In response, Japan decided to water down the previous reforms with increase in required topics in standard academic subjects, increase time devoted to these subjects, and introducing national standardized testing in math and Japanese for the first time in 2007.

“Putting someone on a pedestal is an effective way to ensure he does not veer far from his previous behaviors because any deviation could tarnish the bestowed honor. The Chinese call such actions pengsha or “killing with flattery.” Pengsha derives from a story recorded almost 2,000 years ago: A nobleman rides on a beautiful horse and wins great praises from admiring onlookers. Enjoying the flattery, the nobleman keeps on riding till the horse dies from exhaustion.

“PISA has certainly successfully put a number of East Asian education systems on a pedestal and thus constrained their ability and desire to make drastic changes. But they need drastic changes if they wish to truly cultivate the kind of talents needed to become innovative societies that rival the West because the authoritarian East Asian education model leaves little room for creative and unorthodox individuals to pursue their passion, question the authority, and develop their strengths, although it is extremely effective in homogenizing individuals, enforcing compliance, and hence producing great test scores.

“PISA’s claims about progress East Asian education systems have made over the years can further convince them to keep riding their horses. It gives them the illusion that they are moving forward, in the right direction, because their PISA rankings keep going up. But in reality, East Asian education systems have never “risen,” as PISA often claims. They have always been great test takers. Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong scored extremely well on international tests succ as TIMSS prior to the birth of PISA. Shanghai did not participate in these studies but if it did, it would have scored well.

Ultimately, Yong Zhao abandons the conspiracy theory because PISA does even more harm to the western nations than to the east.

He concludes:

“By attracting poor, developing countries into a senseless academic race, PISA wastes precious resources of these countries. While the 182,000 euros (about US$250,000) participation fee[6] and millions of dollars implementation costs may not be much for developed nations, it can be a huge burden for developing countries. More important, the money can buy a lot more meaningful education resources—pencils, for example—than humiliating PISA rankings or policy advice that cannot be implemented.

“PISA is a good servant but a bad master,” wrote Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg, author of the Finnish Lesson: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland. Pasi is, as always, wise and generous, but in my mind, PISA is a servant that has turned into a bad master, perhaps by design. As it commands the world to race to fix the old paradigm and forgo opportunities to invent a new one, it puts the entire world at risk.”

My hope is that thousands and thousands of educators add their names to the letter of protest against the false values promoted by PISA.