A 'crazy idea' that grew to become a Pisa the action

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 12:00am

ANDREAS SCHLEICHER, the man behind the largest international study on education systems, has an alarming irony to tell the world: education is the sector most deprived of the necessary information to guide it.

'No other sector in society can survive with so little information as education does. Many of our practices are based on guesses and traditions,' Schleicher told a large audience of policymakers and educators at the international conference on the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study held at Chinese University last week.

The head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Directorate for Education called on all governments to base their education policy on evidence-based research: 'If you don't have good evidence, everybody can challenge you and education would become a matter of political negotiation.'

Schleicher's message comes at the right time for Hong Kong, with its financially stretched education sector on the brink of turning into a political battle ground for resources.

For the OECD, Pisa was their immediate response to the problem. The triennial study was launched eight years ago to assess 15-year-old students' literary skills in reading, mathematics and science, issuing its first, landmark report in 2000. Despite its short history, it has already become a major force driving education reforms in many countries today.

'During one of the coffee breaks at a meeting between the most senior education officials of the OECD countries in 1995, our director felt very frustrated. He told me that every official said his country had the best education system and it had all the recipes for success. We know that's not true but we need to create a better empirical foundation to support our point,' Schleicher said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

That year, Schleicher, who studied physics and statistics at university, was appointed to explore possibilities with OECD member countries of carrying out a study to compare their education systems and develop the required measuring instruments. From that beginning, Pisa was born.

Initially, OECD members thought the proposal for Pisa was a 'completely crazy idea', Schleicher recalled. Some were sceptical as to how education outcomes could be quantified and compared, while others feared the OECD was trying to impose a supranational view on global education systems.

Schleicher admitted that the organisation was under enormous pressure from some participating countries when the first Pisa results were released three years ago. But his team fought for the testing process and won. He stressed that the OECD's role was to act as a catalyst to establish an international framework for comparing education outcomes and encourage the exchange of different views. It had no influence on the how individual countries used the findings.

It was never the intention, he said, to promote uniformity. But he believed that successful reform measures could be implemented across countries, despite their different social and cultural contexts. 'I think the attitude that you can't apply reforms across countries is just a bad means to protect failure. We are living in a time of globalisation. Globalisation is transcending many parts of life and we have to get away from the idea that education is reserved and can be operating differently from everything else,' he said.

Pisa has, in fact, had an enormous influence, and one that is growing as more countries, including those beyond the OECD, participate. More than 50 will be represented in the Pisa 2006 study compared with just 32 in 2000. Even the mainland is joining. The work involves hundreds of researchers worldwide. Today, Pisa is generally regarded as the most significant research ever undertaken in terms of impact on education debate and national and international policy.

Germany, one of the poorest performers in 2000, responded by pledging US$4 billion (HK$ 31 billion) towards school improvement. Reforms of kindergarten and elementary programmes were launched, including the lengthening of school hours and hiring of more teachers. Mexico, another low-ranking country, set up the International Institute for Evaluation to look into the problems of its education system. 'The education minister in Mexico told me that the real scandal was not the results, but that they didn't know their own problems,' Schleicher said.

He attributed the growing influence of Pisa to its role in assessing students' lifelong learning skills and to the strengthening international collaboration it involved - areas that other international studies, such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), have not been able to achieve. 'I would call studies such as TIMSS and Pirls inward-looking as they look only at how much knowledge and skills students have acquired. Pisa is outward looking. We want to see to what extent students are prepared for life. We study how students use information, create new knowledge, link knowledge across different subject areas, and to what extent they are motivated to learn,' said Schleicher, who had worked for TIMSS before joining the OECD in 1994.

To do so, the 15-year-olds were required to complete tasks they had never come across. Questions were designed to integrate materials from different subjects. The outcome ranked Finland as the best performing country - top in literacy and the best model in coping with individual differences.

'If you are a parent in Finland, you don't have to worry about which school your children go to because the education system there ensures that all schools achieve equally well. The government provides strong incentives and adequate support for schools to improve. It's very interesting that rather than putting everybody under great pressure and tension, the system works in a relaxed, professional and goal-oriented way,' he said.

But the head of Pisa agreed that quantitative studies alone could not give the whole picture. He encouraged people from Hong Kong and elsewhere to visit Finland to see for themselves the reasons for the success.

He has also been carrying out further analysis of the Pisa data to identify attributes of successful education systems around the world. A report of the findings, which he considered as an attempt to combine qualitative perspectives with quantitative outcomes, will be published early next year.

The OECD has planned to develop Pisa into a more comprehensive study. Schleicher said he hoped Pisa would be able to capture a wider range of competencies in addition to literacy skills and learning motivations, to address how people function and collaborate in a diverse society. He also saw the need to strengthen Pisa's role in gaining a better understanding of the impact of policy changes on results. The OECD would like to look into how attitudes and skills developed in schools could be translated to career and life performances.

At the same time, Schleicher also called on participating countries to localise the Pisa findings by conducting further research and reviewing policy accordingly. 'The true value of Pisa lies not just in getting a broad international picture, but one that you can link to your institutional education context,' he said.

He warned Hong Kong against being satisfied with what it had achieved. 'One generation ago, Mexico ranked 25th and Korea 24th in the OECD ranking of 30 countries when it came to baseline qualifications of education systems. Today, Korea is number one and Mexico has gone backward to 27th.

'That is what can change in one generation. So, success is never forever. It's important to make sure our education systems can adapt to what is a very rapidly changing world,' he said. 'There are many questions in our education systems, and answering them will require significant effort.'