By Ye Eun Charlotte Chun
When the United States dropped to 31 of 65 nations on the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Education Index, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan characterized it as "a picture of educational stagnation." Since the OECD's implementation of Performance for International Student Assessments (PISA), western liberal democracies like the U.S. and the UK have surprisingly seen little to no progress, as nations like China, South Korea, and Japan have leapfrogged ahead of even Scandinavian nations. While many reform advocates have used PISA's results to push for a more competitive curriculum, few have given attention to PISA's testing methodology or the various cultural factors at stake. In fact, the subtle yet significant nuances of socio-economic conditions, educational philosophy, and even student satisfaction, have wider implications than mere ranks would imply.
PISA was first implemented in 2000 as a means of assessing educational attainment rates in OECD nations, taking into consideration factors such as socio-economic conditions, access to education, student satisfaction, and education spending. The examination is carried out triennially, testing performance in reading, mathematics, science, and even financial literacy. Formats alternate between multiple choice and free response to ensure critical thinking skills are also being assessed. While poor student performance has traditionally been attributed to socio-economic conditions, this seems hardly convincing when nations like China significantly outrank the U.S. and the UK in education, while retaining socio-economic conditions below the OECD average. What this implies then is a need for a more nuanced understanding of education, in order to create policies that better reflect the needs of each nation's students.
It is not surprising to see that the highest ranked nations on PISA's report also have some of the highest economic growth rates in the world. However, what is more relevant is the change in performance in relation to factors like equity and economic growth. While nations like Germany, Japan, and South Korea not only saw higher student performance than the OECD average, but also enhanced performance from previous years, nations like the U.S., Norway, and Luxembourg saw little to no increase in performance, despite ranking below or near the OECD average. Meanwhile, nations like Denmark, Canada, and Sweden have seen a deteriorating performance since 2003.
Similar trends can be seen in access to education over the past decade. Though equity, as PISA terms it, has improved significantly in nations like South Korea, Germany, and Turkey, it has remained the same or deteriorated in nations like the U.S., Norway, and the Netherlands. This does not mean that net student performance is equally low; despite their lower equity ranks, Scandinavian nations still occupy top ranks in overall student performance. Nonetheless, the fact that global powers like the U.S. and the UK are seeing little to no progress is cause for alarm.
It also begs the question—what are East Asian nations doing to propel themselves to the forefront of educational development? Part of it is their educational philosophy. Confucianism has always glorified education as the basis for a successful society. To this day, scholars are considered some of the most influential figures in East Asia, often serving as politicians as well. Their education connotes trustworthiness in the minds of East Asian constituents, and in extension, garners respect. South Korea's first bureaucracy was founded in the Koryo Dynasty, under a system of civil examinations that chose those with the highest scholarship. This is the same system that is the basis for China's modern day gaokao, or college entrance examination, that allocates students to universities based solely on their standardized testing performance. To many, such a system represents the ideal form of egalitarianism; the idea that any individual, regardless of age, background, or race, can succeed as long as he or she studies hard. It is no wonder then that academic excellence is so highly valued.
That said, the increasing populations of nations like China and India, as well as the competitive nature of nations like Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, have leant themselves to education systems drastically different from those of western liberal democracies. Rather than ensuring students feel satisfied about their academic experience, East Asian nations are infamous for their efficient and sometimes brutal teaching methodology. South Korean public schools run until midnight, during which it is considered perfectly acceptable for teachers to berate or even hit their students for poor performance. Chinese public schools run under a uniform curriculum, which prioritizes pushing as many students through primary and secondary education over quality control. For many of these nations, the allure of high literacy rates and standardized testing scores often overshadows the feelings and personal mentorship of students. It is no wonder that South Korea, while ranked #5 on PISA's 2012 report for student performance, ranked last of all 65 nations in terms of student satisfaction and happiness.
Another factor to consider is PISA's assessment methodology. No matter how comprehensive PISA has attempted to make its assessments, they are first and foremost standardized tests taken by 15 year old students around the globe. No universal assessment can take into consideration the various socio-economic and cultural influences that impact standardized testing performance. An American student used to taking the SATs three times on a time schedule of his own would perform very differently than a Chinese student hanging his life-long aspirations on an entrance exam given once a year. In fact, the alarming rate of suicides leading up to and following South Korea's college entrance exam has forced many policy makers to reconsider such high-stakes testing. However, the fact of the matter is, many of PISA's test subjects came from nations where the curriculum was based nearly exclusively on standardized tests, and academic success based solely on high-stakes testing. Of course these students would perform better on PISA's tests than those coming from a liberal education background.
It is also worth noting the various responses policy makers in the U.S. have issued following PISA's publications. The vast majority of PISA's report is dedicated to mathematics, where scores had the widest standard deviation. Responses have varied from criticism of PISA's legitimacy to characterizing the U.S. as the embodiment of the "failure of a market-based education system." No education system is above reform. However, if a serious discussion is to be had about education reform, it must do so acknowledging the limitations and scope of PISA’s assessments, as well as the cultural differences that make a superficial reading of PISA's ranks misleading. PISA's reports have significant value in creating more comprehensive policies that cater toward the specific needs of each country not in comparing one polar opposite nation to another. Therefore, using a cumulative ranking of student performance on standardized testing gives East Asia a comparative advantage. However, there are more factors to consider than just numbers. Ask any East Asian student.
Ye Eun Charlotte Chun is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.