Traps to be avoided while interpreting PISA results
PISA 2015 results are out. Singapore has topped the list. Naturally, there is a discussion on top performing countries and lessons that can be learnt from them. While interpreting the PISA results and inferring lessons, one needs to avoid the following traps.
One, pressure cooker model vs. fermentation model. Education systems of countries can be categorised into two types - pressure cooker model and fermentation model.
In pressure cooker model, an artificial pressure is created on students to excel. This is typically through high stake school leaving exams. For instance, if a student who doesn't score above a certain level in 10th grade is ineligible to pursue university education, it creates an artificial pressure on students to excel. Students spend enormous time on tuition classes getting trained to solve 'questions'. Students in that environment have an edge in standardised tests that test them on 'questions'. Most top performing Asian countries fall in this category - Singapore, China, South Korea etc.
In fermentation model, the process of education is organic. Unlike the pressure cooker model, there is no artificial pressure to excel. The process is more through low-stake testing, motivating children to perform, letting students learn naturally without pressure. Scandinavian countries fall in this category - Finland, Estonia etc.
If you want to emulate, what approach would be suitable for your country or is it desirable? Certainly, creating artificial pressure is a brute force method but can some countries take that?
A critic of pressure cooker systems said "Saying that Singapore has best model of education is equivalent to saying that Kota has best model of +2 education."
Two, selection effects. In places like Singapore, Shanghai, students are put into different tracks of education based on their performance in mid-school, around 5th-6th grade. So, students who study 9th grade and take part in international assessments are those who are screened at earlier grades and hence are from the sample of good students. PISA says that it corrects for this sampling bias but there's a big debate around Shanghai.
Just a warning. Indians doesn't need to use this as alibi to justify their poor results. Even students of the best performing schools of India are below the PISA's international average.
Three, interpreting systems in form of a diagnostic model. One of the common interpretations of successful systems is that - good systems invest in teacher education, have a culture of improvement etc. It's important to not to fall into this trap of reasoning.
Everyone knows that imparting education requires good teachers, good school leadership etc. Professing it as a lesson is similar to saying that one needs to daily go to gym and eat healthy food to build a good body. Everyone knows the ingredients. The problem, as with the gym is the ability to daily do that. In context of education, it translates to the ability to impart teacher training, which is the state capacity.
If the lesson is interpreted as "teacher training", then the usual policy that flows from it is to start a new teacher training system. The problem however is that we have realized the importance of teacher training long back. We imparted numerous trainings till now. The problem is not with either lack of realization or non-existence of training. The problem is with doing training better, implementing it in a better manner. We lack the capacity to do that. We should instead focus on building that capacity, resisting the urge to launch new programmes.