This week, the results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. The PISA is a triennial survey that tests the skills and knowledge of 15 year old students in 65 countries. This iteration focused on math, and the comparative results of the 510,000 students who participated helps evaluate the current state of the education systems of their respective countries.
The PISA results shine a light on the focus different systems across the world put on test taking. Many of Asian are stereotypically known for an intense cultural push for success, which often measured in test scores. Given that South Korea topped the chart for the second time*, followed this year by Japan, this cultural pressure on testing seems to be more than just a stereotype. According to one of my classmates, a native Korean, the Korean education system is so grade-based that it turns students into test-taking machines. Finland, ranked number two at the time of the previous survey, supports the theory that kids should be considered in school as more than their test scores. The Finnish education system has received a lot of praise recently for their unique practices. Educational researcher Tony Wagner wrote a book entitled “The Finland Phenomenon” that mentions the mindset that everyone can achieve greatness and equal success as one of the reasons behind their great success. Although there is still a reasonable amount of teaching to the test that goes on in other countries such as France and the U.S (whether it is the SAT, an ordinary exam, or the Bac), education is geared towards improving the whole person and preparing them, ideally, for their future. Furthermore, in these countries, school as an institution sets out to help students become good citizens and stewards of the world.
In that vein, education generally represents an opportunity for children in an undesirable situation to pull themselves out of the rut in which they would otherwise remain. Unfortunately, this is becoming less and less true. In an article published by the French paper Le Monde, alongside the PISA results, was a graph detailing the opportunity gap in a handful of countries, including France and the United States. U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented upon what the PISA results say about the American education system: the results are at odds with the country’s desires and they reveal a stark achievement gap that Duncan believed could be decreased if we raised expectations to meet the level of student confidence. Even worse than the opportunity gap in the States is that in France. The French Minister of Education, Vincent Peillon, wants to focus even more of the country’s efforts on bringing all the schools up to the same level. To achieve this goal, he suggested taking some of the funding from an elite genre of post-high-school, college prep schools (known as les écoles préparatoires or prépas) and put this money towards the Zones d’Education Prioritaires (ZEPs, or high-priority districts).
In class, we had a discussion about what we would do if we were the secretary/minister of education. Given that my class is a mix of private and public school students, a bunch of Americans, one Frenchman, one Korean and one republican, the discussion was lively and captivating. The ideas centered around money and structural issues. A few suggested action steps include incentivizing states to invest more in their public education systems, having the government amp up the education budget and channelling the existing funding into the poorer schools/districts.
In my opinion, there is a fundamental disconnect between what the public and the government seems to want and the reality of what is actually happening. Specifically in the U.S, thought it is a touchy subject, the general stance seems to be that we are in a decline and thus need to focus more on our internal affairs as opposed to playing international policeman for every disturbance. The government has also committed on multiple occasions to focusing on the education system, with President Obama noting in his State of the Union the incredible impact it can have on those who aren’t so well off and the general importance for a strong educational upbringing. However, while acknowledging that America is invested in improving the current educational situation, my classmates and I also discussed a certain ambiguity in the country’s priorities. We have to decide where we want to put all our energy- is it really a concerted push for better test-taking that we are looking for? Although the direction is a bit unclear, there’s hope in the air for the future of the American educational system.
*China was technically at the top however, the astronomically high scores rekindled suspicions of cheating and as a result of the scores being both too high and potentially invalid, China was left off of many results lists, including one published by Le Monde.