Category Archives: Competition

Shanghai PISA Results

In today’s Globe and Mail Mark Mackinnon had a folio about primary and secondary education in Shanghai. This piece basically started with last year’s PISA results where Shanghai students scored highest among comparison “countries” to tell a story of a narrow focus on exams and test-taking. While the article describes the situation in Shanghai well and fills this description out with some interested quotes from officials, the situation in Shanghai as it is described will be quite familiar to readers from other hypereducation societies.

This also confirms my long-standing prediction that China is quickly headed to hypereducation on a national and thus massive scale.

One element in Mark’s article that I noticed was that he wrote that “In faraway North America, there was the usual handwringing that children there are falling further behind studious (and numerous) Asian kids.” I would contend that at least for Canada there was relatively little of that handwringing in part because participating Canadian provinces consistently do well on PISA and similar comparative standardized tests. This seems to have given the Canadian public a certain self-confidence that borders on the self-satisfied when it comes to the discussion of education elsewhere.

The other element I noticed in the article was that Mark didn’t mention the doubts about the results from Shanghai in last year’s PISA. PISA results have been subject to extensive methodological scrutiny in almost all participating jurisdictions. Some commentators suspect that some of the test-to-test improvements in students’ achievement are primarily the result of gaming the test system on the part of education authorities rather than of substantive improvements, especially when no policy changes have been implemented between test iterations.

One obvious methodological challenge with the Shanghai results is that these compare students in a single city (and one that can be assumed to be particularly resource-rich and filled with ambitious parents compared to the national Chinese average) to entire countries. This is also true of Hong Kong and Singapore results, of course, but brings with many fewer sources of variation in achievement through rural-urban inequalities, etc.

The Shanghai results in some ways seem so outlandish that it’s difficult not to doubt their veracity. 600 on math when the next closest score is 562 (Singapore) and other point differentials tend to be in the single digits between countries? Hm…

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that Mark repeated the OECD’s claim that 80% of Shanghai students attend supplementary education. Little further information has emerged about this claim, though I suspect that most of it is in the form of private, one-on-one tutoring, but there have been numerous discussions about the pressure that this exerts on all Shanghai students. This, of course, will once again be familiar to parents and observers of many other hypereducation societies.

Competition = Excellence?

In an editorial for the Globe & Mail on Oct 11, 2011 (“Alberta’s Education System Offers Lesson in Competition“), Tom Flanagan, a professor at the Univ of Calgary and presumed confidant of Prime Minister Harper, extolled Alberta schools for their status as higher ranking than “those of any other English-speaking jurisdiction in international tests of education competence”.

The editorial asks the question why exactly Alberta has been doing so well. This is a very worth while question to ask, even after considering whether standardized scores have much to say that’s meaningful. While many countries (who have done poorly, e.g. Germany, but also some who have done very well, i.e. Japan) are somewhat obsessed with PISA scores, these scores are largely ignored in Canada.

However, Dr. Flanagan hardly provides an answer to this question. He merely lists the many alternatives that are open to students and parents in Alberta. From the number of alternatives, Dr. Flanagan concludes that there is vibrant competition among these alternatives. By some unspecified leap of faith, he then concludes further that this competition must produce the excellence that is observable in Alberta.

It is this logic that underpins many of the arguments for supplementary education as well. Choice leads to competition among schools (or supplementary education institutions) which leads to excellence as only excellent options “survive” competition.

Yet, there is little more than apparent logic that speaks in favour of these links. Empirical evidence is scant at best.

For example, on charter schools, research in the United States has questioned whether such schools actually open up competition because geographic mobility inhibits further-away choices. Dr. Flanagan counters with bussing strategies in Albertan cities that bring options closer to interested students. Fair enough, yet ultimately the number of options that students and parents look upon as reasonable to consider is still very small.

Next, does choice actually produce competition and if yes, competition on what? The choices that Dr. Flanagan points to (from charter schools to various language immersion options) sound great and many of them would certainly be options that I would consider with my children (disclosure: my children are all enrolled in public French immersion schools in Vancouver), but few of these alternatives explicitly aim at pedagogical or outcome excellence, they seem to emphasize content options instead. By which logic does the presence of French or Mandarin immersion programs raise math achievement scores?

Some pedagogical alternatives do exist, of course. How do students and parents evaluate these options? Presumably on the basis of some kind of standardized testing and word-of-mouth. The latter is probably somewhat unreliable, even in smaller cities, but somewhat meaningful, while the former may be fairly reliable, but only meaningful for broad comparisons, much less so for the individual fate of a student within a given school.

It is precisely questions that emanate from a discussion about the role of choice and excellence that have driven me to research about supplementary education in Japan. Here’s an entire sub-education system that’s built around for-profit competition with no shortage of options and parents in metropolitan regions who are not inhibited at all about sending children 90 minutes on public transport to a specific juku. Yet, a diversity of options? Excellence?

The diversity of options is entirely restricted to a diversity of delivery methods (individual, small group, less and less large group, on-line, worksheets, etc.). There is virtually no curricular diversity in a supplementary education system that shadows conventional schools quite closely. The same holds for other countries where hypereducation has taken root, i.e. Korean or Taiwan in E Asia, or Brazil, Egypt, Turkey elsewhere around the world.

So in the end, I would certainly agree with Dr. Flanagan that choices, especially substantive and curricular choices for students are a good thing. However, I’m not sure what part, if any, of the observed excellence in standardized testing is due to the presence of choices.