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PISA Learning, Not PISA Topping

This post is by Andy Hargreaves.

If you want to raise your performance, one way to begin is to learn from similar peers who are doing better. This simple practice is known as benchmarking.

Nations are benchmarking when they compare themselves against other nations on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. This instigates a sense of urgency. "If they can do better, why can't we?" It should also stimulate learning about what to change and how to improve. "Why are they doing better? How can we?" But sometimes urgency turns into panic, and benchmarking becomes competitive bench pressing where everyone desperately tries to outdo each other. Instead of PISA learning, they obsess about PISA topping. This creates some crazy outcomes.

For example, between 2006 and 2009, Australia fell from 6th to 9th place on PISA results in reading. This prompted a national push to be in the top 5 by 2025. Yet, in the meantime, three additions had been made to the list (Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai), and all of them were now in the new top five. So in relation to the original list, Australia hadn't fallen at all, but it was now driving a massive 12-year reform to move up just one place, from 6th to 5th.

When benchmarking is genuinely about learning, what we learn can sometimes be difficult to translate into policy. But we shouldn't deny that we learned it. For example, the high PISA performers of Singapore, Korea, and Japan all have cultures that support intensive after-school tutoring services. Does this mean that American students should now be doing extra cramming and test prep long into the night? The high performers of Finland, Singapore, and Korea all have widespread military service for men that could be one contributor to strong national identity. Should the U.S. now re-introduce compulsory military service? And, the special education policies in many high performing Asian countries are 30 years or more behind the U.S. Surely, this doesn't mean that the U.S. should turn back the clock on how it treats students with disabilities? When we are benchmarking, we need to be open about what we learn, to be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of other high performers, and to be explicit about what policies and strategies we should or should not adopt from other countries based not just on their scores, but also on what is the right moral path and the best cultural fit for America and Americans.

Since 2005, in The Fourth Way (Corwin, 2009) and The Global Fourth Way (Corwin, 2012), Dennis Shirley and I have taken this learning mindset towards investigating high performance across the world. We benchmark using multiple indicators of success that include PISA and also other measures like the United Nations' rankings of child wellbeing. Our task has been to understand what we see first, with open eyes, and then figure out the implications after that. Here are four implications that we believe are practical and desirable for the U.S.

    1. Test prudently. Unlike most U.S. states, no high performing nation tests all students, on almost everything, in every grade until Grade 8. Singapore does it only once, at age 11. Ontario tests in Grades 3 and 6. Finland doesn't have high stakes tests at all. Alberta will abolish all standardized tests in 2015. Let's test less, test better, and then learn more. Testing reading and math in just Grades 3 and 6 is a good start.
    2. Build professional capital. High performing nations select highly qualified teachers, then develop them over their careers, until they are experts. They don't recruit teachers with little training for two or three years then let them go. The U.S. should also invest in teachers' professional capital long-term, to get high returns for generations to come.
    3. Lead from the middle. High performing countries are led by strong school districts that work together. The U.S. has been squeezing out its districts by concentrating control at the top and by introducing more competitive school autonomy through charter schools and other measures at the bottom. The middle is hollowing out and incoherence will be the result. In Finland, the districts and their schools drive almost everything. Singapore is basically just one big district. School districts in Canada are strong and interconnected. It's time to improve, reform, and connect U.S. districts, not weaken them.
    4. Collective autonomy and responsibility. High performers raise standards and reduce inequities by strong schools helping partners who are struggling. Resources are moved from central office to the schools to make this possible. There is collective accountability for results. More and more Canadian teachers talk about "our children", "our classes," and "our schools", not "my children", "my class," and "my school". The U.S. schools need collective autonomy from outside interference, not individual autonomy from each other.

Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Follow him @HargreavesBC.
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