The 2012 international survey of student academic prowess was released this week, and has led to the usual flurry of breast beating and pomposity . There is much to say about this survey, which provides a rich and provocative data set identifying educational trends around the globe. It’s certainly worth spending a little time at the official website where you can peruse the performance of 15 year olds in maths, reading and science at your leisure. The headlines, though a little shrill, capture the essential trends well enough. It does appear that a number of Asian nations are making great strides, educationally speaking, and as a result the top order has been shuffled somewhat (an effect exaggerated by the curious way in which Chinese results are reported).
On the home front, it is also true that New Zealand has suffered some significant slippage. It’s not just that we’ve fallen down the rankings, which I want to suggest is much less important, but rather that for the first time since 2000, we’ve seen a sharp decline in our raw scores. It’s not end of the world stuff, we’ve gone from being one of the elite nations to being still solidly above the OECD average, but the shift in results is large enough to cry out for an explanation. I can’t immediately think what the result does reflect, in terms of background education conditions. We’re talking the difference between a cohort born in 1994, and one born in 1997, and given that this fall doesn’t appear to be part of any broader international trend, the issue is presumably local. None of the usual suspects (socio-economic shifts, national standards, NCEA) seem well matched to the time frame. So, any thoughts, anyone?
Meanwhile, may I take issue with the obsession with rankings that seems to be emerging on the back of this survey. Whether we are educating our children well or not is apparently, if the way we’re reporting this reflects our mood, far less important than whether we are out-scoring our neighbours/competitors. Framing the debate in this way, as if the purpose of an education system is to produce young people who are better at tests than young people in other countries, requires a special, although apparently common, kind of stupid. As soon as we adopt the ‘must do better than others’ stance, we commit ourselves to prioritising those incremental shifts that might just be enough to push us up a single place in the rankings. Dull minded politicians will begin to set targets and make promises, and as a result precious resources will be moved out of the true priority areas, like dealing with educational inequalities, or walking the talk on the broader values articulated in our world leading curriculum.
The premise on which the obsession with competition appears to be based is the rather crude idea that national economies are analogous to competing businesses, and which ever one can produce the best product at the lowest price will ultimately force the other out of business. The fear then is that if New Zealand’s students aren’t quite as hot at algebra as those in Thailand, then that’s the end of economic opportunity for us. Economist Paul Krugman, who’s won a nobel prize for his work on trade theory, and presumably knows a little about such things, has been most vocal in rubbishing this approach, and his work is well worth hunting down. Meanwhile, it should be suffice to note that in all the years where New Zealand’s educational performance sat atop the international pyramid, our economic performance remained below average. The correlation between educational achievement and economic prosperity, at least at the margins picked up by shifts in the pisa data, is negligible, and for very good reason.
Overall investment patterns are much more important than small shifts in the average measures of academic prowess, when it comes to determining economic capacity. The dullard with a dump truck is always going to shift a load more dirt than the genius with a wheelbarrow.