Category Archives: comparative education

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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Leading Educational Change

“This isn’t a theory. There are already points of disruption across the whole planet here and I’m just encouraging you to believe in it and to try to move our systems into the twenty-first century”.


 global forces and education

We know that globalization and technology are influencing and changing educational practices around the world and the values that underlie them. Education has been caught in the economic force of integrated markets, production and consumption. Yet education is also contributing to this force, for skills and knowledge delivered by schools, drive the global economy. In turn, the global forces influence educational institutions. It appears that globalization has blurred the boundaries, not just of nation states but also the foundations of the value and aims of education, while systems and government policy slowly try to respond to the rapid socioeconomic changes.

 factory education

National education systems have been criticized for their slow pace of response to global economic change. Educational systems are historically built within the industrial paradigms and many still operate in an anachronistic pyramid structure. Children are still being prepared for integration into the old industrial social order, sieving the ‘intelligent’ children from the ‘dumb’ children, creating a factory for national development. Yet the industrial model is obsolete. Nation states are no longer homogeneous and populations are mobile,

“Each of the approximately two hundred countries on this earth is a destination, transit, or source country of international migration, or a combination of all three”

Süssmuth, R. (2007), Our Need for Teaching Intercultural Skills, in Suárez-Orozco, M. (ed.), Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education, London: University of California Press

This calls for education to prepare students to adapt linguistically and culturally. It also insists on effective, relevant teaching and learning.

 what’s important?

So what should we teach and what is of societal value? What are the skills that children need? At the nexus of educational, socio-economic and environmental change is the hope for transnational values to address global concerns. We all face unequal global development and human rights issues, challenges of environmental sustainability, cross-cultural interaction and conflict. Dialogues on the search for transnational values highlight the problem of cultural interpretations of ‘value’.

Comparative education is essential in discussing what and how to teach. Finland and Singapore are currently being held up as exemplary education systems because of PISA scores and commitment to teacher development. Yet cultural differences means that you cannot transplant systems. We can, however, learn from them. Here is an interesting article on comparative Singaporean and Finnish systems-

 How can I lead educational change?

“I’m just a teacher and this is the curriculum” and “This is the way I was taught and I know it works” is not going to cut it- sorry. Teachers are at the front-line, leading the way in twenty-first century learning. The responsibility lies with teachers to keep up with societal changes, educational developments and technological change. Building a professional learning network and being brave is a good starting point- making time to read and analyze research, discussing new ways of learning and reflecting. We need to think critically about what and how we teach. What skills are we developing? Above all we need to give students a voice in teaching and learning. In this way, we can be leaders of change ‘from the ground up’.

“We are not the future. We are right now” Shelley Wright

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Filed under 21st Century education, comparative education