The problem with Pisa

I was recently fortunate to be invited to talk with a group of Australian school principals from an AITSL (Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership) and Asia Education Foundation professional learning tour of high performance global school systems. The world’s governments are looking to countries such as Singapore and South Korea, to learn the secrets of success in the OECD Programme of International Student Assessment (Pisa). However, the Australian principals that I met with were far more questioning of the OECD results. Perceptive educators can identify the problems with the testing system that takes place every three years. I only hope that policy makers with short-term incentives feel compelled to similarly interrogate the OECD educational standards and testing methods.

What is Pisa?


Pisa results are limited. School systems occur within a pedagogical and wider socio-political context informed by cultural expectations. These cannot be replicated in other countries. The OECD results, which celebrate education in Singapore, South Korea and China, also hide significant aspects of education systems such as the shadow education industry- supplementary out of school privatised tutoring.


Hong Kong Tutor Kings

Some of Hong Kong’s celebrity tutor kings and queens (image from



Competition for sessions with Hong Kong’s celebrity tutors, the myriad of after school academic classes that thrive in the spirit of Singaporean ‘kiasu’, all have an impact on mainstream performance and equity. The question remains to what extent the formal education system relies on the tutoring industry and how it alters pedagogy.



Comparative education is an enormously beneficial field of study within a large, open global and cultural framework. Yet the use of standardized tests, in subject areas easily evaluated in comparison, narrows the educational outcomes for children. The OECD Pisa tests do not measure education. Education is about more than a confined set of measurable knowledges. Moral and civic motives of education are not quantifiable by the Pisa tests. Does that conclude that they are not important? In a globalized world with unequal development and environmental crisis, a crucial educational aim must be international understanding and responsibility.


Dr. Yong Zhao expounded on the problems with Pisa in no less than 5 parts in his blog illustrating how, amongst other things, Pisa has halted the East Asian drive to reform education. Furthermore, on the 6th May 2014 an open letter from leading academics and educators was published in The Guardian, explaining how Pisa tests are having a negative effect on global education with suggestions for making the measuring process more meaningful.


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Filed under comparative education, Pisa testing, shadow education

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