Why there’s no “holy grail” in education

One of the leading thinkers on international comparisons in education has called for countries to avoid the “silly notion” that there is a “holy grail” when it comes to system improvement.

In his talk - the first lecture to be held at Cambridge Assessment’s new global headquarters, Triangle - Professor William H Schmidt pointed to Finland as an example of where policy borrowing should have been avoided. Celebrated for its performance in the 2003 and 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies, educationalists flocked to the country to understand the reasons for its success in what was dubbed “PISA tourism”. But in subsequent years Finland has fallen down the PISA rankings.

Prof Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University in the US, criticised a tendency to focus exclusively on countries that have taken top spot in international rankings, saying that was “ridiculous”.

“Every three or four years we’re all used to the fact that there will be a headline: ‘Country X is number one in the world…’ There’s a belief, a silly belief, that you find out who is number one and then you seek out the holy grail… if only you can find that and drink of it you will end up with a good educational system. It’s a silly notion that these countries are where we will find the answer as to how to improve our situation”.

Instead, he said if policy makers wanted to learn lessons from the best, they should look at the deeper common characteristics of those countries that are continuously at or near the top, such as Japan, Singapore and Korea. He said these countries tended to have three main principles in their education systems: a focus on a small number of topics; rigour – studying these subjects in depth; and coherence - in other words, following the logical structure of the discipline.

Prof Schmidt began his talk – hosted by the Cambridge Assessment Network – by charting the development of PISA and its counterpart the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), both of which he has been involved in and for TIMMS from the start. Now more than 100 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe, have taken part in at least one study, with TIMMS providing a picture of students aged 13, and PISA providing a picture of students aged 15 primarily. He praised both tests as being done “extremely well”, adding: “…they’re thoughtfully designed, the sampling and the scaling are both done very professionally”.

He suggested that the analysis of both surveys would be improved if ‘opportunity to learn’ was consistently considered – it is unsurprising that children do not do well on things which have not been taught – and this should be used to refine reporting from the surveys.

He said that importantly the surveys allow policymakers to examine the extent to which schools are improving equity in education. He said that the quest for both excellence in performance and equality in opportunity is attainable – although few countries have achieved it, Canada and Japan being two examples of those that have.

More than 100 people attended the event, and the audience included 30 delegates from the 16 different countries that are taking part in this year’s Cambridge International Study Programme. Many hundreds more watched online and took part in a lively question and answer session afterwards.

You can watch a recording of ‘What we have learned from 60 years of big transnational surveys’ above. Professor Schmidt has also just written a book on the subject, Schooling Across the Globe, which is planned to be published by Cambridge University Press in November.

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