How seriously should we take PISA?


While taking my summer holiday visiting my parents back in the UK, an article in the local paper got my attention. The school where I studied as a teenager had just been selected to become a hub for the Shanghai Masterclass. Looking into this a bit further, the UK are planning to bring a large number of Maths teachers from Shanghai to work with British Maths teachers to improve the performance of British students; read more in this BBC article.

Living near Shanghai, I was well aware of the attention that the city was attracting for its results in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, which so many policymakers are using to inform decisions about education in many countries around the world. Two things about this UK initiative sprang to mind:

Firstly, how accurate is PISA and to what extent should we be using the results to inform decision-making in education? The following article gives a brief insight into answering this question: How accurate is the Pisa test?

Secondly, is bringing 60 teachers from Shanghai to the UK the panacea in addressing the UK’s quest to improve it’s performance in Mathematics?

This question particularly interests me, as there are so many examples of where we see something that works in one part of the world and we try to bring it into our own environment expecting it to have similar results. Well we all know what happened when Australia introduced the Cane Toad from South America to protect its’ sugar cane crop. Please do not get me wrong in that I think having 60 maths teachers from Shanghai sharing their practice in the UK will be a complete disaster. I am sure there will be some benefits.

The problem lies in that the teacher in the UK have no concept of what life is like for students in Shanghai schools or students in China. One must see the Mathematics teaching in practice, experience student life in those successful schools, understand the lives of these students and the families that support them. As we all know, the home environment (the home culture and that of the local society) makes up the biggest single factor influencing student success and then the teacher. We must understand both of these key drivers of student performance to really see what generates this success and only then can we begin to understand what is required in our own country. As always, context is everything, and then there is the issue of the validity of the PISA.




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