By Gideon Rachman
When political leaders start rewriting the past, you should fear for the future. In Russia, Hungary, Japan and China, recent politically sponsored efforts to change history textbooks were warning signs of rising nationalism.
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.
South Korean students in Seoul (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
A novelty that has emerged since the mid-1990s is the international standardised test solely designed to measure how good national school systems are – not individual schools nor their pupils. Today, two of the three big tests issued results.
The tests, TIMSS and PIRLS, measure basic learning skills and primary school performance respectively. (The third big test, the OECD’s PISA test, comes out next December. It measures higher order skills among 15 year-olds.)
The educational divide in the US is always startling: on the TIMSS maths test for teenagers, Alabama’s test scores put them in line with Armenia and behind Dubai. Meanwhile, Massachusetts comes in at around the same level as market-leader Japan.
These tests confirm the crowd of top performers: Korea, the Chinese cities and Singapore always do well. Not even Finland and Ontario, western school-reform pin-ups, have the degree of consistency that the Asian education superpowers do.
This will spark hand-wringing about school performance, but it is important to note the role of culture. As a really simple experiment to show this, we can look at how Chinese children in England do in their GCSE exams at the age of 16.
Chris Cook, the FT’s education correspondent, on how the WISE conference in Qatar showcased alternative attitudes towards learning and knowledge.
By Chris Cook, education correspondent
Qatar has enormous oil and gas reserves, but the little state is trying to kick the petroleum habit and become a high-tech society. It wants a sustainable economy for when the oil runs out – and a more cultured society in the meantime.
The Qatar Foundation is the institution that is leading this drive: I am in the little Gulf state this week for WISE, their annual summit on education, where I was a speaker on the finance of education. The whole thing is rather spectacular.
When they say they are going to do something, they go big – sometimes to a rather baffling degree. One of my favourite examples of this is their super-duper equine health centre, which trains horse-handlers and apparently features a sauna for the horses.
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