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Debates about education standards and reform often happen at the local, state, and national level without much talk of what’s going on abroad. But recent test results show the United States trails behind some developed and developing nations in reading, writing, and math performance. Join us as we expand the education debate and learn more about education policy and reform in a globalizing world.
- Tom Loveless Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution
- Andreas Schleicher Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); Director, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)
- Lucia Buchanan Pierce Partner, Shanghai Education Consulting Associates
- Pasi Sahlberg Director General, Center for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) (Helsinki, Finland)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. No matter where you grow up around the world, testing is a part of the teenage school experience. In the U.S., we take the SATs and the ACTs. In Britain, they take their O levels and their A levels. I still have nightmares about that, being from a former British colony, but I digress. In China, students take the gaokao.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut every three years, thousands of 15-year-olds in the world's major economies sit down and take the most standardized of standardized tests, the program for International Student Assessment, also known as the PISA test. Last year, U.S. teens ranked 17th on the list, well behind their counterparts in Shanghai, China, Finland and Canada. This hour we're asking why. Why did schools in Shanghai finish at the top, much better than schools here in the U.S.? And how do our debates about education and testing compare to education debates in other countries?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDo parents in Germany worry about teaching to the test? Is there a Finnish equivalent to Michele Rhee, Arne Duncan or Randy Weingarten? Joining us in our Washington studio is Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution whose research focuses on education, policy and reform. Tom Loveless, welcome back.
MR. TOM LOVELESSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios in Paris, France is Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Education Directorate of the organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD. The OECD runs the aforementioned PISA test. Andreas Schleicher, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANDREAS SCHLEICHERThank you. It's a pleasure.
NNAMDIWashington, D.C. is at the forefront of a national debate on education reform, but maybe we should be considering what works and what doesn't in other countries. Tom, the most recent test results from PISA seem to show that we are in the middle of the pack, so to speak, globally. What was your reaction to this story?
LOVELESSIt's about where the United States has been scoring since the very first international test. There's a myth out there that there was a golden age and the U.S., at one time, lead the world. In fact, the first test, which today is known as FIMS, the First International Math Study, was given in 1964. There were 12 countries. The United States scored 11th out of 12 countries. So we have never performed very well. I was amused with Arne Duncan. Secretary Duncan said that we should have a wakeup call. We probably should've been awakened back in 1964.
NNAMDIA legacy of mediocrity is what we're talking about here?
LOVELESSYes. The United States does not perform very well on these tests. And on PISA, we have lingered around the international mean, except in mathematics where we're below the mean. And that's certainly nothing to be proud of.
NNAMDIAndreas, as I mentioned earlier, the test is called the Program for International Student Assessment, PISA. Tell us more about the test. Tell us about why it exists and exactly what it does test.
SCHLEICHERWell, you know, we live in this global world where everything that can be digitized, automated and outsourced can now be done anywhere in the world. So countries are very interested in comparing their competitiveness and skills. One of the resources that countries have today to be competitive in this global world and resource that is often (word?) important (word?) natural interest of ministries of education, of governments and the general public to see how well their students are prepared for this world. And that's basically how the idea for PISA was born and what drives us.
SCHLEICHERAnd we started with a small group of countries, but today we cover about 90 percent of the world economy. Most of the countries that contribute to the world economy want to know how well their students are prepared.
NNAMDIExactly what does PISA test?
SCHLEICHERYeah, PISA looks at sort of poor subject areas, mathematics, science, literacy, problem solving skills. And what is special about it is that PISA is not just looking at whether students can reproduce what they have learned, but it is really focusing on to what extent can students creatively extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge, sometimes in unfamiliar settings. So it's a lot to do with basically creative use of knowledge rather than just rote learning.
NNAMDIAnd Andreas, what do these test results not tell us?
SCHLEICHERWell, they don't tell you something isn't being tested for. It's something people talk about, things like social competences. That's something that we're not yet able to measure in a comparative framework. There's a lot of things that PISA or tests in general don't cover that are important in life. But on the other hand, we can also show now -- we have quite good longitudinal data that the kind of skills that PISA assesses have a very high predictive power for the future of individians (sp?).
SCHLEICHERYou can basically see that doing well on PISA, even after accounting for social background, is a very strong predictor for your capacity to get into a high paying job or to university or college.
NNAMDIWe're talking about international education standards and attempts at reform around the world. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you studied or lived in other developed or developing countries? How do their approaches to education differ from ours, according to your experience? 800-433-8850. Send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet at kojoshow or simply join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org. Tom, Americans love certain historic analogies and when it comes to anything related to education, science and our global standing, we almost always hear the word Sputnik thrown around. What's the significance of that today?
LOVELESSWell, what Sputnik did was it catalyzed a reform movement in math and science education. Right after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in the late '50s, there was a lot of concern in the United States that American children were not given a rigorous enough curriculum, especially in math and science. Life magazine had a famous series comparing a high school student in the United States with a high school student in Russia. And the whole thrust of the article was, in Russia the student was very concerned about studying math and working hard at learning chemistry and physics.
LOVELESSAnd the American student, basically, went to school to hang out with his friends, to play sports, after school at a part-time job and did other things other than academic pursuit. So that's really what Sputnik is given credit for, is making Americas concerned about academic achievement.
NNAMDIPISA doesn't seem to be having the same effect.
LOVELESSNo, it doesn't. First of all, we have many more kinds of international data today than we did then. As I said, the first international test was given in 1964 and that's quite a few years after Sputnik. Today, we have both PISA and another test called TIMSS which gives us data that -- TIMSS assesses achievement in math and science with younger children, grades 4 and 8 predominantly. Also, the PISA test in the United States has been controversial.
LOVELESSThe math portion. Mathematicians, professors of mathematics at major universities have criticized PISA for its content. They claim that PISA lacks mathematical content, that the math test, because it's a math literacy test, actually doesn't have the kinds of mathematics, algebra, geometry, maybe, trigonometry, that one would want to be using to test whether or not high schools kids have really mastered mathematics. So the test is a little bit controversial here in terms of content.
NNAMDIAndreas, what do you have to say about that?
SCHLEICHERWell, naturally, I don't agree with it. I think the take up by PISA, by the majority of the industrialized world, is actually an indicator that this is what countries today regard as relevance. I mean, it's true there is the assessment of TIMSS, but most people now in the industrialized work would review this as an assessment of rote learning. It's just reproducing whether students have learned a specific formula and we basically believe that that's no longer enough to be successful in this world.
SCHLEICHERWhat counts as whether you have learned the mathematics, but whether you can end, can creatively use and apply that. But I think this is a debate that is important, that goes on. There are differences or views about those things. I think what matters in the end is to what extent does a test predict your future success in the work place. And I do think that we have very impressive data from longitudinal studies in countries like Canada, Australia, Denmark and some of the developing countries that really show, you know, those are the kind of capacities that influence your capacity to contribute to the workforce later on.
SCHLEICHERAnd I do think we need to put more emphasis on to what extent is an assessment a good predictor of success in life, rather than to what extent does it reflect particular scientific disciplines (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about students from Shanghai, China. Upwards of 80 percent of Shanghai students in secondary school go to college, but yet a lot of people were surprised by how strong Shanghai students did on this test. They finished 1st in all subjects. First you, Tom, what do you think accounts for that strong showing?
LOVELESSWell, Shanghai really is the jewel of the Chinese educational system. And it always has been. This is the first time that Shanghai has taken PISA, I believe. Andreas can correct me if I'm wrong. So we don't really have any long term data. What we can look and see, you know, what was Shanghai's system like 10 years ago? What was it like 20 years ago? Has it really changed? My guess is -- I first visited China in 1985. As a matter of fact, I took high school kids from California to China on a field trip, a rather lengthy field trip.
LOVELESSAnd we stayed on a communal farm. But when we stayed in Shanghai, I mean, even in 1985, it was evident that Shanghai had an excellent school system. It also attracts people from all over China who want a good education for their children. So people are moving from rural areas into China to get a good education. Now, if you go for every mile west of Shanghai into rural China, the picture is very different. And, of course, we don't have test scores on those children.
NNAMDILucia Pierce is an independent education consultant working in Shanghai, China. She counsels Chinese students about applying to American colleges and universities. Before moving to China, she worked here in the District at Sidwell Friends. We talked to her about the PISA results and the differences in how students are educated in China and the United States.
MS. LUCIA BUCHANAN PIERCEI think there is a self discipline of learning and a belief that education is the path to success in China and I think that's probably a little -- although the numbers fare out the college graduates who better than students with high school diplomas in the United States. I think the education being the means to success is not necessarily taken as strongly in the United States, perhaps. I think Chinese feel that the students should begin to be a little bit more experimental, use more lab time in their science. Often Americans feel that our students probably need to start math learning earlier and in more depth out of more (word?) .
NNAMDIAndreas, you are from Germany, a country that finished somewhere in the middle of the pack on this test. But you follow education debates around the world. You just heard what Lucia Pierce had to say. Care to comment?
SCHLEICHERYeah, I think, the attitudes and expectations of society, the value a society places on education has a major influence on outcomes. You find, actually, when you look to high performing nations around the world, you find that this is quite an important common characteristic. But I do think there is more to it. I mean, if you look at the success of Shanghai, it isn't just a high average performance. It's a success of the system, even in rather deprived areas. You know, Shanghai's a big province. It has 5.1 million people. (word?) was very low immigrant status. Guest workers come into Shanghai to do construction work.
SCHLEICHERAnd they have succeeded to provide even those students with a very good education. They have been able to attract the best teachers into the most difficult schools. So it's not just culture. It's not just the attitude a society has. I mean, you mentioned Germany, my country. Actually, the PISA resides in 2000, caused a major shock. Because in 2000, Germany was way below the OECD average on case subject areas and it has galvanized society. Basically, if you look at this 10 years later, Germany has seen mayor improvements in those PISA outcomes. It shows you that it's not just sort of the nature of a country, but it's what policy does it with that can actually achieve major changes.
SCHLEICHERYou look at Poland, you know, another country that has seen dramatic progress. You look at Korea, a country that did already well in 2000, but it's actually been able to raise performance. Or you look at Chile in South America or Brazil, those were countries with very, very poor resides that have seen remarkable progress. So I think -- I would sort of warn against just attributing this to more motivated students or more engaged parents, but there's a lot that has to do with how you run an effective education system.
NNAMDIHere's Decanti in Baltimore, Md. Decanti, your turn. Go ahead, please.
DECANTIYes. Thank you very much, Kojo. Thank you for this opportunity. I'm a former public schoolteacher. I have taught in Montgomery County. I have taught in Baltimore County. I think a lot of times the conclusion of studies like this are used in very destructive ways by people like Michelle Rhee and people all around the world to defund public education because a lot of times the research shows conclusively hard facts that poverty impacts education. Finland, that has the number one school system in the world, has a 4 percent child poverty rate. The U.S. has a 28 percent child poverty rate. That's the first point. Second point...
NNAMDIWell, you'll be happy to know, Decanti, that after we take a short break and come back, we will be talking about Finland...
DECANTIOkay. Yeah. And then I know...
NNAMDI...with somebody in Finland but go ahead.
DECANTIOkay. Last of what I want to say is that when you compare places like China, Singapore, those places score high on those tests, but when we look at new innovation and invention, they're not coming from those places, you know, on the college level. You know, a lot of those new -- invention and innovation are coming from Europe and here. That's to say that -- I mean, you know, there are, you know, involvement in a lot of, you know, rote, practice and -- I mean, you know, like in China, you know, most of the students go to three hours of extra tutoring after school. You cannot do that in D.C., you know, someone is going to chop your head off if you...
DECANTI...help that child...
DECANTI...you know, three hours above the (unintelligible) of school.
NNAMDIInterestingly enough, talking about innovation and the like in the United States, China is looking at the United States in that regard. That's one of the things that Lucia Pierce had to say, that that even though Chinese -- even though Shanghai students are leading the pack on PISA, Chinese educators themselves are looking to reform.
PIERCEShanghai has a very strong student body, has very excellent schools, certainly excellent schools all over China, but Shanghai has a particularly large number of excellent schools. They work -- the Shanghai Ministry of education is in somewhat separated from some of the overall ministry of education in that the Shanghai schools have their own gaokao, which is the exam that all seniors take at the end of their senior year, which determines whether they -- where they will go to college and what they will study.
PIERCECertainly the education ministry in Shanghai and individual principals are talking energetically about reform. There's a feeling that there needs to be more critical thinking, an ability to be more independent in making comments in class, speaking up in class. I think the issue that is facing them is that as long as test scores are what determine what -- where one goes to school and what one studies, taking the risk on those test scores is just too big a risk for anybody to take. The test scores determine where students go to college and what they study and, in part, there's almost no other way to do it when you have millions of students taking tests.
NNAMDILucia Pierce is an independent education consultant working in Shanghai, China. Before moving to China, she worked at Sidwell Friends here in the District. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation about global education standards and reform, talking to somebody in the aforementioned country of Finland. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWhere we're having a conversation on international education standards and school reform with Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His research focuses on education, policy and reform. And Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Education Directorate of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD. He joins us from studios in Paris, France. We're going to move on to Finland in a second. But before we do, continuing briefly our conversation about Shanghai, China, let's talk with Andrew who is calling from Shanghai, China. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWWell, thanks for taking my call. It's 2:30 in the morning here so I was just listening in on the internet and I had to give you a call because I did go to high school in Europe, but I'm from the U.S. I completed my high school in the states and then I've been working here in China. And I think there's a huge difference when you talk about Chinese school and students because it's so homogeneous here.
ANDREWYou know, we have a very rich and diverse culture in the U.S. and that's reflected in our students. And I think that when you compare this type of test, you know, I think it's kind of like looking at, you know, five years ago saying that the housing crisis would always go up. And, you know, Andreas is talking about how this test will predict success in the future and I just don't think that that's true anymore.
ANDREWI think it's the same thing as us saying that, you know, the housing cost would never change, it would always go up, and up and up. You know, the way the economy is changing and the way the world is changing -- you know, we have a very rich and diverse group of people in our country and that's one of our great advantages. And, you know, China is different. You can't compare one country with a different one, even Germany, although it has different ethnic groups within the country.
ANDREWOur country is so far more diverse that we may not score as high and, frankly, I don't think we need to. I think our richness comes from creativity and diversity and that's what we need to encourage. We don't need to be the very best in math and science in order to develop new products, new concepts, new ideas and the richness that comes from all of that.
NNAMDIOkay. Andrew, thank you very much for your call and thank you for staying up until 2:30 in the morning just to listen to our broadcast. I'd like to put this question both to Tom Loveless and Andreas Schleicher and add to it an e-mail we got from Keith in Silver Spring who says -- first you, Tom Loveless. Keith says, "How much could culture play in test taking? Americans tend to be anti-authoritarian and non-conformist. Could this feed into an anti-testing mentality? We tend to display our knowledge in practical ways rather than through exams." And what Andrew is saying is that we may not do well on exams, but we're great innovators.
LOVELESSWell, I agree with part of it.
LOVELESSOkay. These tests are important. They do have predictive ability. Now, I don't think PISAs need is special about this. There's nothing special about PISA in this regard. All cognitive tests, when we give tests of simple arithmetic, and we have longitudinal data on this in the United States, to kids in high school or in eighth grade, it predicts a whole bunch of later important things in life and not just income, either. It really predicts quality of life so these tests are measuring something valuable.
LOVELESSOn the other hand, here's where I agree with the callers, both of the previous callers, and that is culture matters. And one of the reasons why the countries that score very high, when you just look at them at one point in time -- and don't forget these are cross-sectional data so we have to be very careful in terms of what they can do and what they can't do.
LOVELESSWhat they can do is tell us who's doing very well and who's not doing very well. They're not very good at telling us why. They don't really tell us why Finland scores at the top. They don't really tell us why Shanghai scores at the top, nor do they tell us why the United States scores where it scores. So we have to be very cautious when we interpret these data, but cultures are really important.
NNAMDIAndreas, same question.
SCHLEICHERI think diversity is a very big asset the United States has, which actually a number of other countries have as well. I think creativity, innovation are huge assets, which the United States has. But, again, also, those assets depend increasingly on knowledge and skills. You know, inventions are no longer made by great ideas, but they are made by great ideas from people who have high levels of skill. So I think both shouldn't exclude each other. And on the diversity aspect, you know, even -- you take a country like Finland that is probably very homogeneous, but, you know, in the 1960s, Finland was an average performer. Now, it's one of the top performing systems. If you look at a country like Brazil, it was doing very, very poorly. It's done a lot better 10 year's time.
SCHLEICHERPoland was an average -- these countries didn't change their culture. They didn't change their students. They didn't change their teachers. They changed their education systems and their approaches to education also and I think that's very important. Every country has its assets and its liabilities in terms of culture, diversity, whatever. But I do think by looking at this over time you see how some countries consistently move forward. You know, everybody talks about Singapore. Singapore, by the way, a very diverse country...
SCHLEICHER...with lots of cultures, lots of -- one of the worse performing systems in the 1960s, not even on the map of international comparisons, now at the top. So I think culture can be a barrier. Culture can be an asset. But a lot can be done within the constraints of a country and a lot of changes, what we observe globally.
NNAMDIAnd, Andrew, thank you very much for your call. We've been talking a lot about Finland so let's go to Finland. Joining us now by telephone from Helsinki, Finland, is Pasi Sahlberg, director general, Center for the International Mobility and Cooperation and works on education reform and policy in Finland and abroad. Pasi Sahlberg, thank you for joining us.
MR. PASI SAHLBERGIt's a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIWell, Finland is a European country that finished second in the rankings. What is Finland doing right?
SAHLBERGI think we are doing many things right really. And like Andreas was saying, that the result that we are now looking at in this country is the result of the long -- several decades of the work. But I think one of the things that we have really been putting an emphasis on for a long time is who are the people who are teaching in our schools. So we are making sure that we have the best people in our schools and this is possible by requiring that every single teacher, including primary schoolteachers, are holding the academic Master's Degree and it's a very competitive place to get in.
SAHLBERGAnd they get a good training in our universities and that's why they have respectful workplaces in Finland schools where most of the teachers, as soon as they are employed, they will stay there, unlike in the United States where the problem is of keeping trained teachers in the school. So if I have to pick out one thing, really out of these many factors of -- that are behind good performance, I would pick up how we treat teachers as professionals in this country.
NNAMDIYou have wittingly or unwillingly jumped right into the middle of the most rambunctious aspect of the debate of school reform we're having in this country. And a lot of people probably want to know, what do you do in Finland about bad teachers?
SAHLBERGWell, I would like to say that we don't really have too many bad teachers because the selection to teach education is so competitive and rigor. It's not only that you have to be a very top high school graduate before you can enter into the universities to become a teacher, but all of those top students are also very carefully screened by the staff of the faculties in our universities, making sure that they are -- they have a -- kind of an ethical and moral basis for teaching.
SAHLBERGOf course we, if I'm completely honest, we have teachers who are not so good as the good teachers. But we don't have this problem of having bad teachers. Actually, we don't talk about in our language bad teachers. We talk about teachers who need improvement and support probably more than others. But we don't have this issue of having bad teachers in our schools.
NNAMDITom Loveless, we certainly had that as a part of our ongoing dialogue of school reform, bad teachers in the -- in this country. Is it possible that there's no such thing as a bad teacher and what we have are teachers who have not simply been properly trained?
LOVELESSWell, I can say as a former teacher that I did know bad teachers. They simply picked the wrong profession. Whether or not that's -- that animal exists in Finland or not, that's a different question. I'll take Pasi's word for it that there are no bad teachers in Finland. But there are some bad teachers in the United States and what to do with them, as you said, is quite controversial.
LOVELESSI have a question for Pasi, if you don't mind.
LOVELESSIn the United States, Pasi, every time a new international test score comes out, either PISA or TIMSS, every little wiggle that the -- if the United States loses two points, I get five phone calls from reporters saying, you know, what happened? And the one thing I noticed with Finland scores is, yes, they're quite high, but in all three subjects in PISA, reading, math and science, Finland scores went down since it -- the test was last given in 2006.
LOVELESSSo did anybody in Finland raise the question or wring -- just wring their hands a little bit and say, you know, our test scores are good, but they didn't go up, they actually went down from the last administration of the test. Any coverage like that in the press?
SAHLBERGYeah. Well, this is a good question. This time, the whole 2009 PISA results went through the media with very little notion on this. And if you look at the -- Finland's performance in the previous PISAs -- three previous PISAs, we have been climbing up, unlike most other countries who have had kind of a fluctuation. I think the only notion that we had in -- both in our media and in our professional community was not really related to the students average test scores, but we were -- we were worried about the sign that we also had through our own research here that we are seeing now the widening gap of the equity wise in the performance of our system, meaning that the -- although we still have the smallest between school variation in students performance, but it's widening.
SAHLBERGAnd this is exactly the same signal that PISA is showing that we have through our own research. And we are much more worried about this, this widening gap between the schools and also between the individuals. Particularly we are worried this time about the huge difference that we have between the boys and girls in reading. And we are much more focusing on these things than trying to, you know, catch up these few points of the national average.
NNAMDIAndreas Schleicher, there are those who say that in the U.S. we have a lot of good schools and a lot of bad schools. We don't have, it would appear, that many in-between schools. Care to address that?
SCHLEICHERWell, actually there is significant variability in school performance. It's not actually exceptional. Like, the United States is neither very strong at the very top, nor very pronounced at the very bottom of the schools, but there is variability in school performance. There is variability in resourcing. I mean, one of the things that you see in the United States that you see in very few other countries is that poorer schools also get less resources.
SCHLEICHERIn most other countries, there's an effort at least to put sufficient resources into schools in disadvantaged areas sort of -- there is variability on many fronts in the United States. But, you see, what is interesting is it's not the socioeconomic variability that explains the outcomes. It's actually the impact that socioeconomic background has on learning outcomes that drives the variability and overall resides.
SCHLEICHERIt's a very important point, sort of you can't explain what you see by diversity in the country and the student population, socioeconomic diversity, but coming from a different social background makes more of a difference in the United States than in some of the other countries.
NNAMDIOnto Gary in Alexandria, Va. Gary, you're on the air. It's your turn. Go ahead, please.
GARYAll right. First time caller here.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Gary.
GARYI'm a technology attorney. That means I am a patent attorney who helps to promote technology wherever he can. And I have a number of clients over the past ten years who have incredible technology. Some of it's in the medical field, some of it's in Telecom, some of it's in medical devices. They can't get funded, even though their technology is better than what came before, even though they worked on these inventions for years and years and years.
GARYTwo things changed in my observation. One, the financial culture in North America, meaning venture capitalists, want everything for relatively little money, and most inventors won't go for that. It's simply -- it's an insult to them that somebody would come and offer them a million dollars for 75 percent of their company and push them out and never even develop the technology.
GARYThey simply change it a little bit, they do a little marketing, and within six months, a year, they flip the company and they sell it. The technology never gets the market. The inventors never really get any money. And the other thing I've observed to change, in the last ten or 12 years, is the culture towards science and education in this country has become -- and I don't know the correct word here. It's almost as if it's not significant any more.
GARYAnd this is frightening because what other countries have done who have observed our success over the last few hundred years, recognize that most of it is based on what I call the science and math skill sets. That these are simply international languages. If you don't speak math, you can't talk to another scientist. If you don't speak chemistry, you're not going to talk to a pharmacologist.
GARYAnd as a consequence of this, our own values have changed. Not those in China, not those in India. In fact, they are…
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, Gary, so allow me to have Tom Loveless comment on this because Gary seems to feel that what we need is another Sputnik moment in the United States.
LOVELESSWell, we need to emphasize how important it is, to especially high school kids, to take hard math courses and to do well in them and to work very hard. You know, one outlier we haven't discussed, American high school kids tend to have part-time jobs and that's unheard of in the world. You won't find that in Finland. Pasi, please correct me if I'm wrong, but over half of American high school students work part time for paid employment while they're going to school. So this is another kind of distraction that we have in the United States that other kids don't have around the world.
NNAMDIGary, thank you very much for your call. We're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, please, if you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try our best to get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're look at global education standards and school reform around the world with Pasi Sahlberg. He joins us by telephone from Helsinki, Finland. He is director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation. He works on education reform and policy in Finland and abroad. Andreas Schleicher is head of the indicators and analysis division at the Education Directorate of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He joins us from studios on Paris, France.
NNAMDIAnd Tom Loveless is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His research focuses on education, policy, and reform. Allow me to go directly to the telephones to Bill in Washington, D.C. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLYeah. Thanks for taking my call, Kojo. I want to second what Andrew from Shanghai said about culture being important. In some 20 years of working with the international training programs overseas, I found the American technicians to be head and shoulders among many of the other folks from other countries when it came to solving non-standard technical-type problems that you run into when you're maintaining equipment. That's my comment.
BILLMy question is, who developed these tests initially, how were they validated, and how are they updated?
NNAMDIAndreas, can you answer that question, please?
SCHLEICHERYeah. The tests are developed jointly by the countries of the OECD, the principal industrialized countries. They have specialists -- committees of specialists in each of the subject areas. They basically sort of agree on a framework, decide what is important, establish the weights, and then the tests get approved by the government of the OECD before they are being applied.
SCHLEICHERThey are also validated against national curricula. There is basically a matching test to assess that each question is sort of reasonably matched to what students in different countries are being taught. They are validated against criteria.
SCHLEICHERAnd then one of the most interesting aspects I mentioned before is that we actually look not just what students know at a particular point in time, but in a number of countries, we follow those students actually up to see to what extent this assessment is predicting their future success, which is sort of this assessment of external validity is perhaps the most important relevant aspect of this.
SCHLEICHERBut it's an extensive process. It takes more than five years to develop any of those assessments because it's a very complex process to get something that the 34-member countries, if they jointly agree and accept as a standard against which the education systems are measured.
NNAMDII'd like to hear about this. It's a kind of follow-up from different perspectives starting with you, Pasi Sahlberg. It's a follow-up, as I said, to Bill's question. What do, from the Finnish perspective, PISA results indicate about the ability to compete in a global economy?
SAHLBERGWell, I think, like we have heard before in this show, that the -- we are seeing the PISA as a very, very important proxy for the students' knowledge and skills that they need in the knowledge economy. Particularly in the economy that is run by technology and innovation like in Finland.
NNAMDICan you make a relationship, Pasi? Finland has embraced a unique niche in the global economy. It's become a leader on things like mobile phones. Is there a relationship between how you have been doing on the PISA test and that development?
SAHLBERGI don't know if we can draw any correlation between the PISA test itself and the economic performance of the country, but I can say I'm a former teacher and -- I used to teach math and science, which is very much about what the PISA is all about. That's what the PISA is -- how the PISA is treating the problems and the content in these subjects is very much along the lines that we are -- we are seeing now what the economy and the companies in this country do need. So I think that in this country there's a very close match between the so-called philosophy of the test and what is needed in the labor markets today here.
NNAMDITom Loveless, a country goes from being number 35 to being number one on the PISA test. Any indication about whether that country is therefore better positioned to compete in a global economy?
LOVELESSI don't think we have much evidence of that. I'm going to disagree with Andreas very strongly on that point. There isn't much longitudinal data on PISA because the first PISA test was given, after all, in just the year 2000 so there can't be that much longitudinal data. There have been some interesting studies done in two or three countries, but again, any cognitive test is going to correlate with later outcomes.
LOVELESSBut let me make this point. On the math test in particular, the objections of mathematicians, including mathematicians in Finland, by the way, when Finland -- when the first PISA results came out showing Finland the top country in the world in math, there were 200 mathematicians at the college level who signed a petition saying, gee, that's nice, but we're getting kids that don't know any math when they come to our university.
LOVELESSSo they actually questioned the content of the math test. Now, here's the main point. The PISA framework says, in mathematics, this is a test that is not tied to the school curriculum. We measure other things. We're interested in other things. Well, if you give a test that's not tied to the school curriculum, you very well can't use it to judge whether the schools are teaching their own curriculum very effectively. And that's the problem with trying to use PISA data to judge school systems.
NNAMDICan't use it to judge whether the schools are teaching the curriculum properly. Andreas Schleicher, can you use it to judge how likely students from that country are to be competitive in a global marketplace?
SCHLEICHERWell, first of all, the claim by Tom Loveless is plainly wrong. Certainly PISA assesses what countries teach. I mean, every test question that goes into PISA is validated by every country against its curricular relevance. It's something that any test should be doing, that PISA has been doing like any other test. So I think that's sort of one thing.
SCHLEICHERClearly PISA is closely assessed against its curricular relevance, otherwise countries -- the nations that administer it, including the United States, wouldn't accept it a benchmark for measuring the performance of the education systems. But I think it's one thing sort of whether you just test the contents of what people teach, but I think the point that Pasi Sahlberg was making, and that I would also very strongly emphasize, is that it is important that you know some mathematical content.
SCHLEICHERBut the test of truth is whether in a real life context you can extrapolate from this, whether you apply that content in a novel situation. In real life, nobody gives you a multiple choice test. In the real life, you have to solve practical real life problems and that's what we place the emphasis on. It's not speaking against curricular relevance.
SCHLEICHERClearly every PISA task is very closely matched against its curricular relevance. Clearly, every PISA task is very closely matched against its curricular relevance. Our frameworks are very closely matched to what country (word?) of course differs. I mean, it's very clear that what country -- what Shanghai teaches is different than what the United States teaches.
SCHLEICHERSo obviously, you can't match a specific national curriculum, but it's tied to what is being taught and therefore it can be used to assess the performance of education system. It can also be used -- Tom Loveless is right. Our longitudinal data go only back up to the year 2000, but since then, you know, those kids are now starting their career in college. So we can actually see to what extent what they knew at age 15 is predicting.
NNAMDISome of them have already graduated...
SCHLEICHERAbsolutely. Some of them are in the labor force and actually, the relationship between what they knew by age 15 and what they're able to do in college and afterwards is actually very, very pronounced.
NNAMDIHere is Satu in Lexington Park, Md. Satu, you're in the air. Go ahead, please.
SATUHello, and thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to simply tell that I honestly agree with Pasi Sahlberg. If you have to pick only one factor for the Finnish success -- I am a former teacher from Finland, currently lived in Maryland and have been living here for the past five years or so and my two daughters attend the school here. And I do have to say that if -- in Finland, they are highly educated teachers. They do get to apply their skills, what they've learned versus it almost looks like (word?) teaching here in the U.S.
NNAMDIBut Satu, there might be another factor. I'd like both you and Pasi to respond briefly to this e-mail that we got from Merga. "I am a Finland educated mother of two in Maryland. Every time these test results come out and the U.S. is not near the top, many people offer early education as the answer. I feel sorry for the little kids who are already now pushed way too much during their early years when they should mostly play.
NNAMDIIn Finland, school-going age is seven. Before that, most kids go to municipal daycare centers where there's lots of music and play, no reading, so kids start learning the alphabet when they are seven. And in three months, most of them read fluently because they are mature enough to learn. After that, Finnish kids advance in a speedy way. My son, a straight A student, visited a Finnish school when he was in the third grade. He came home in tears.
NNAMDIMath class had been so far ahead of what he was studying in the third grade in the U.S. that he didn't understand anything and he knows the language." First you, Pasi.
SAHLBERGWell, we -- we really do not believe in this country that doing more of the same things would really make any difference. It's true that we start late and there are very few people in here who would propose that we should start schooling or formal education any earlier than age seven. And in many other ways also, Finland is a very interesting case if you compare how their education reform and development has taken place here, that we have been kind of thinking or believing in the principle of doing less and receiving more.
SAHLBERGWe have the -- not only that we start school later than most other countries, but we also have the least instruction hours for our children and they do the least homework. And this is a big issue here as well. Practically nobody is spending more than half an hour for homework, which the lowest rate in the world. So I think there must be something in this idea here in this country that by doing less we are able to achieve more. It's simply a principle of learning. We believe that the children have to have time and place and learning rather than teachers have time to teach them.
NNAMDISatu, is that your experience also?
SATUYes. I think so, too. I mean, I think the kids here in the U.S., including my two, they are being pushed a little too early. It's -- I just, you know, having them being at school for so many hours so early on, it doesn't really make sense. And also I wonder why there's so much -- actually this is one of my friends from Finland who was wondering that.
SATUWhy does so much of the developmental research come from the U.S. and it's not really being used here because that's what a lot of the Finnish -- you know, we base the Finnish system on that, you know, that you need to do the things developmentally right at the right age and stage. And even then, we start a little later in Finland. You still have to kind of give different individuals...
NNAMDII'm afraid we're running out of time very quickly, Satu, but I'd like to put this question, based on what you asked Tom Loveless, in about the minute or so we have left. A lot of times debates about education touch on cultural issues, how students learn, how the country views education. To what extent is this education conversation one about culture? Are there some things that just can be reformed? I can't see people in the United States waiting until seven to send their children to school, for instance.
LOVELESSI agree. I agree. And I think it's a clear illustration of how culture interacts. Our school systems around the world are designed to reflect what our cultures value and what our parents and our families value in terms of family time. I would add in Finland -- that Finland is unique is starting at age seven. Most countries start before age seven, at least by age six. But Finland also has something happening at the other end.
LOVELESSThey have a lot of older kids still in secondary school at 19 years old, which does not occur in most countries as well. So there's an impact in starting kids late.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Tom Loveless is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution whose research focuses on education policy and reform. Andreas Schleicher is head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Education Directorate at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development OECD. And Pasi Sahlberg is director of the General Center for International Mobility and Cooperation.
NNAMDIHe works on education reform and policy and Finland and abroad. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez, and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, with help today from Tinbete Armais (sp?), Kathy Goldgeier. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. Our engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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