What do the PISA rankings tell us about the global race for competitiveness?

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Familiar calls rang out this week to halt the decline in western countries’ performances in global education rankings. It seemed on first glance that the rise of the intensive east Asian model of schooling has only accelerated. However, the results from PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) come with plenty of caveats – as amply summarised by Sam Freedman of TeachFirst here.

Along with statistical shortcomings – only about 10 per cent of students answered all the questions on reading – there are also broader critiques. Accurately comparing the educational systems of countries with staggeringly different cultural norms, school systems and input hours may be an impossible task. The rankings also focus narrowly on the maths, science and reading skills of students in everyday situations. There is no evaluation of students’ ability to master technology for instance – surely a key skill for the knowledge economy.

Still, while the PISA rankings may not be ideal, they do provide a useful indication of a individual countries’ performances in key skills over time. The results indicate a steady decline in standards among Scandinavian countries. For Britain, its mediocre performance has remained consistent for a number of years – hovering around the OECD average for reading, writing and mathematics.

The Strategies that Work

The strategies of successful countries in PISA throw up some interesting insights: The mean performance of many western systems is dragged down by the failure of a relatively higher proportion of students to perform basic mathematical functions. By contrast, in east Asia expectations remain high for all students. Poorly-performing students are identified early and encouraged to catch up, though they aren’t segregated from their peers.

However, instead of basking in the glory of the Shanghai region’s first-placed performance, Chinese parents and educators are increasingly criticising their education system for being heavily-based on rote-learning. Students are voting with their feet too –China is now the World’s largest exporter of students. This phenomenon points to a ranking system that tells a very different story; that of university league tables, still dominated by American and European institutions.

A Global Competition

In an earlier age, education rankings formed the cultural front line of the Cold War, as each side showcased their educational models as exemplars of the opportunities offered to their citizens. Today, policymakers regularly link the economic prospects of nations with the skills and abilities of their workforce. President Obama recently warned nervous educators that “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” But even if the PISA rankings are the best comparisons of basic educational abilities around the World, do they really tell us much about the competitiveness of each country’s human capital?

One study suggested that PISA tells us a great deal indeed. Stanford economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann projected that if OECD countries achieved a modest increase in the average PISA scores of their 15 year olds from 500 to 525, their aggregate GDP would rise by $115tn over 20 years. These findings highlight the need for policymakers to collaborate with countries like South Korea, who have invested wisely in educational expansion and improvement with excellent results.

Recognition of these trends has prompted political leaders to set higher targets for university completion in their countries. But the race to get more graduates may miss the point of the PISA rankings. The problem in the west may not be educational qualification attainment per se, but rather the cognitive abilities of those students when compared with their Asian peers at the same stage in their education. Boosting university and school completion rates won’t do much good if standards aren’t up to scratch. And let’s not forget that when it comes to university rankings, it’s the west that has the competitive advantage.

Picking the Targets that Matter

Regardless of who is ahead and who is not, global educational standards are not a zero-sum game. Global interdependence means that the growing ranks of well-educated, middle-class consumers in Asia are likely to consume ever greater quantities of iPads and other western-designed luxury goods. The question for policymakers is how to identify the skills future generations need to continuously innovate and develop the goods and services the global marketplace demands. Setting targets is easy – picking the targets that matter is the tricky part.