PISA: dangerously unbalanced education
PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), as some readers will know, is an assessment of 15-year old students carried out every three years by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 countries and regions (where a region is considered a distinct ‘economy’). The results of the 2009 test have just been released, and they don’t necessarily make for very comfortable reading, either in Ireland or in Scotland.
Ireland is ranked in 21st place. For comparison, the top performer is Shanghai in China, followed by Korea and Finland. The United States is at number 17, Germany is at number 20, and the UK at number 25. At the bottom of the table we have Azerbaijan and Krygyzstan.
The UK gets more specific comments in the documentation, and what stands out is the apparent conclusion that its only middling performance is not the result of under-investment. The report points out that the UK is one of the top education spenders measured per pupil, and Britain’s parents are amongst the most educated, and yet the country under-performs. But interestingly, while literacy in the UK is relatively high, proficiency in mathematics and science is below average.
Ireland’s performance in mathematics is also below average (the country fares better in science). And overall, Ireland’s standing in educational terms has declined significantly over the lifetime of these tests since 2000.
The worrying thing about PISA is that we know that our education systems in these islands are in decline, but there is a remarkably inadequate sense of urgency in our countries about this and not much of an understanding why this is so. We conduct our education debate around the issue of resources (as we know from current excitements), but while these are of course important they are not everything, and we need to get a much better grip on what it is that we are doing wrong. We are seriously at risk of being seen as educational under-performers, and we cannot afford that if we are to return to better and more prosperous times.