Experts urge politicians to avoid “PISA Panic”

The Education Media Centre has collected breaking news reactions to the publication of the PISA 2012 results – the OECD’s influential comparison of the performance in tests of more than half a million 15 year olds in 65 countries in maths, science and reading.

According to the OECD, Asian countries are top : Shanghai, China and Singapore in this latest “survey on the state of global education.” The UK comes out as average, as in previous years – leading to accusations that the UK’s education system is stagnant.

The experts are available for media interview and can be contacted directly or via the Education Media Centre by calling either Sue Littlemore or Cathy Farmer on 020 7862 8022/3.

Expert reaction to the 2012 OECD PISA results

Professor David Spiegelhalter FRS, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge:

“Some fascinating nuggets can be found in the troughload of data provided by PISA: for example Korean students come near the top of everything, and yet are the unhappiest at school.” “PISA explores many factors associated with country performance, but occasionally seem hasty in assigning reasons for change – we can’t decide causality from this study, and we should be very cautious in the lessons to be learned.” “While it would be nice if the UK were the Manchester United of maths, quality of education is not as easily measured as football prowess.  And if PISA measures anything, it is the ability to do PISA tests.  Aligning policy along a single performance indicator can be damaging – we need to look at the whole picture.”

Professor Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham:

“It is disappointing that the UK’s 15-year-olds should come so far down the PISA tables, but is it the fault of the schools?  So many other things affect the scores. In the Asian countries that do so well, there are tiger mothers and a lot of out-of school tuition.  In South Korea and Finland the languages are simpler.  The Asian countries care very much about how well their children perform, whereas as in the UK there is a casual attitude to the tests.  Different tests give different results with Russia significantly below the UK in PISA, but above in TIMSS.   If the UK desperately wants to improve its position, it could do so relatively easily by training students on the tests and offering generous incentives for doing well.  But this would not improve the education system.  The danger in the exaggerated importance that politicians attach to PISA, is that implicitly they are pushing the world to a narrow and particular view of education.”

Harvey Goldstein, Professor of Social Statistics, University of Bristol:

In the release of PISA 2012 results, our politicians as well as OECD itself, attempt to account for countries’ positions in the rankings in terms of the way education systems are organised.  Thus, Michael Gove claims that England’s ‘mediocre’ ranking is the fault of Labour education policies to which current 15-year-olds were subjected, and Tristram Hunt claims that the results show that England needs to emulate high ranking countries such as Singapore. In reality, both interpretations are fallacious. “

“We simply do not know what characteristics of the English, Singaporean, or any other system, may be responsible for its performance. It is simply not possible to make any such kind of causal inference from PISA results. What has often been termed ‘PISA Shock’, leading to  ‘PISA Panic’, has accompanied past releases and politicians of all persuasions, in many countries and abetted by OECD, have used the ‘evidence’ about movements up and down the tables to justify changes they wanted to make anyway to their own educational curricula and assessment systems. The best thing to do with these results is for policymakers to shrug their shoulders, stop making simplistic comparisons, ignore the media hype, and decide whether supporting PISA really is value for money.”

John Jerrim, Lecturer in Economics and Social Statistics, Institute of Education, University of London: “We perform a lot lower compared to the high performing East Asian nations like Japan and Singapore. I’ve done some research into this myself previously, and what I find that we are just as far as these nations at aged 10 as we are at age 16. So in PISA there is a tendency for people to go and say, that this is something about our secondary schools – our secondary schools aren’t performing at the required standard. What I would argue is that isn’t necessarily the case. It might be something about primary schools or something that is happening earlier in the school system or indeed outside the schooling system that may be driving our lower performance relative to these high performance East Asian countries.”

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