The recent TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey) and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results have been met with the usual fanfare or damp squib depending on where you reside. The idea to compare countries’ educational systems via standardized tests always seems to be an ill-considered one, and yet every year such rankings keep coming. There are people eagerly awaiting the results to see whether a country did well enough to provide cause for celebration or poorly enough to allow for an onslaught of criticism.
TIMSS and PISA have many critics, not least from leading academics like Yong Zhao at the University of Kansas; but despite their criticisms they are regularly held up by governments to champion or condemn educational practices in their own country – or other countries. Among other things this has led to an unhealthy obsession among educators from all over the world with Finland, whose results, system, and general educational indefatigability has become the hopeful example of a Western nation that can achieve good scores in the face of competition from Asia, without the need for mirroring long hours and encouraging high pressure competition.
This year, in a pattern that is becoming monotonous to follow, the Asia-Pacific has all the real winners, with the TIMSS results showing that Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), and Japan significantly outperformed all other countries. These locations have used their success in these global standardized tests to boast of their educational systems, schools, teachers, and students. On the back of this success, we have witnessed a gentle wooing of the West, where, for example, the U.K. now widely utilizes a Singapore mathematics scheme. Alongside these academic initiatives, we have also been subjected to the unusual spectacle of a number of bizarre and disingenuous exchanges, mostly in the name of entertainment. We have seen, on the BBC no less, British children sent to Chinese schools (it was too hard, the Brits were too rude, and they gave up) and Chinese teachers sent to U.K. schools (the children were too rude and wouldn’t listen, so the teachers gave up).
In a recent follow-up, the BBC covered three Welsh children in South Korean schools and found that the truth is far more complicated than anything a standardized test can show. South Korean children are studying 14 to 16 hours a day to compete, ultimately, in a make-or-break university entrance exam. Welsh children don’t need to do this and they have more free time, which, depending on who you ask, may be a good or a bad thing.
Welsh PISA scores are lower than South Korean ones, but comparing the two is like comparing leeks and kimchi. The Asia-Pacific countries near the top of PISA rankings all feature tough final university entrance exams in highly competitive social environments, whereas Western countries left this behind a long time ago. A key moment in the story of the Welsh children in South Korea came when one of the South Korean children talks about suicides from her peer group due to the pressure coming from family and teachers over the college entrance exam results. How many suicides are worth it so that a country can attain the highest PISA scores? The BBC, keen to make us laugh at hapless Welsh teenagers trying to mop the floors in a Seoul high school, also makes the more morbid point that South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world, plausibly linked to the competitive nature of the society. However, those familiar with the countries that topped the TIMSS and PISA rankings will not be surprised by the suicides, the competitiveness, nor the 14-16 hour days of the students. This is the norm in these countries. This is not the norm in Wales and other Western countries for a reason: a different culture exists.
The recent noises from Australia, bemoaning a lower TIMSS score than Kazakhstan, could perhaps benefit from more perspective. One of the things that makes countries hard to compare is the intangible nuances of culture, which filter into the education system. The Australians should, perhaps, be celebrating their more competitive school sports systems, for example, rather than berating themselves for their mathematics and science slips.
At the other end of the scale, we see poor results from the Middle East and from Singapore’s neighbors, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. In focusing on the top, we neglect to take action on the bottom and to find out what isn’t working and why. An interesting improvement was made by Vietnam, which took a top 10 place in PISA but is without the wealth of the other Asia-Pacific countries.
The conversations taking place around PISA and similar exams aren’t the ones that should be taking place. Looking at the way schools are set up and run in China is unlikely to be of much use in Europe and vice-versa. Schools prepare students for society and no matter how globalized the world is, their main task has to be to get the children out into the wider world and to play a part, usually within the weltanschauung of the public sector intellectuals of their home nation.
In the West, this has come to mean a focus on entrepreneurial skills and passion. Buzzwords like growth mindset and grit still reverberate around the corridors, whereas in Asia, the buzzwords are still exam score and the names of Ivy League colleges. Looking at the PISA scores that were released this week, eight of the top 11 are Asia-Pacific countries, which place the greatest emphasis on competition, endurance, and pressure and whose students spend almost twice as much time studying as children in other countries. However, PISA showed more balanced results than TIMSS with better results for Canada, Estonia, and Finland, who all made the top 10.
The real story is that whilst the wealthier Asian countries dominate these tables, the students are paying a price to do so. The long-term implications at an individual level aren’t really known. The stories of children studying until midnight every night and putting in a double shift all weekend are forgotten in the league tables. What does this mean? That the educational systems are not as good or simply that they have a different focus? At the end of the day, comparing apples and orange will never produce a meaningful or fair comparison. Those that want oranges will never agree that apples are better and the apple lovers shouldn’t be mimicking orange growers in the hope of getting better apples.
Simon Greenhalgh is currently Assistant Principal at Seoul Foreign School. He has spent most of his adult life involved in the education sector in Asia. He is on Twitter @onegoodschool.