The Tyee has published my article Why Global Learning Scores Matter, and Why They Don't. Excerpt:
PISA offers at least an appearance of objectivity and therefore of accuracy in assessing student performance. However different the cultural conditions between the laid-back Finnish system and the relentless grind of the Asian cram schools, the scores looked unbiased by teachers, politicians, or educational ideology: can the kid solve the problem?
PISA therefore carries a lot of political clout, which means teachers, politicians, and educational ideology must either support the tests or find some way to deal with unwelcome results. Finland has done both.
When the first PISA scores were released in 2000, everyone was amazed that Finland had beaten just about everyone. The Finns were amazed too. For 30 years they'd been redesigning their school system, not to get high test scores but to give every kid an equal chance at a good education. Having succeeded at achieving equality, they were surprised by this unexpected side effect. The top scores continued in more recent tests, though they declined a little in 2009 and still more in 2012.
In fact, a lot of Finnish teachers didn't like the results; they thought PISA was scoring the wrong skills. They still do, but the political benefits of top test scores were unquestionable. Now that Finland is losing economic steam and education funding is drying up, some teachers are happy with today's results. Now, they figure, the government will have to put more money into restoring smaller schools and tackling problems like mould in classrooms (which has been affecting an estimated 250,000 students and teachers).
No doubt B.C. teachers will see just the opposite effect of our good PISA results: Victoria will see no reason to improve education funding, since teachers on a lean diet have been doing so well.
Radically different views
These contrasting attitudes stem from radically different views of the purpose of education. The Finns see themselves as a small country (about the population of B.C.) in a big, tough world where they have to compete as a nation against other nations.
To do so they need every citizen to be as skilled and educated as possible. The current education plan calls for Finland to be "the most competent nation in the world by 2020... to enhance the competitiveness of Finnish knowledge and competence."
So Finnish education is egalitarian and cooperative, and PISA confirms it: gender differences in math and reading achievement are "among the lowest compared to other countries participating in PISA," and relatively few Finnish students are among the low performers.
By contrast, many other countries including Canada are in love with the "star system." We want our kids in the highest-ranking school, with the top-ranking teachers, so they'll go on to become all-As students admitted to the highest-ranking universities with the top-ranking professors -- and then to become the highest-income, most successful members of some high-prestige profession.
In effect, Finland and other social-democratic countries compete (very effectively) against the world. We compete against each other, and so do our kids. For us, education is a war of attrition, a kind of endless Hunger Games, and the survivors are the kids with the most advantages. Everyone else is the collateral damage of the star system, the odds stacked against them from the start.