Category Archives: PISA

Obsessing about Finland

Does the (success of) the Finnish education system have any relevance for Japan?

The degree to which some of my interlocutors in Japan obsess about Finland and see Finnish education as a panacea for all that is wrong (presumably, but see my argument for the central importance of perceptions) with Japanese education has puzzled me for some time. The somewhat less urgent interest in Singapore falls in the same category, I think.

Now, Keita Takayama who has been doing some terrific work on the place of Japanese education in a comparative and global context, makes the case that the reference nation status of Finland (and the lack of such status for E Asian education systems that perform equally well in PISA and similar comparisons) is due a) to the proximity of Finnish policies to OECD precepts, and b) to Finnish pre-PISA status as a “tabula rasa” among education systems that is not burdened by any of the preconceptions about E Asian education systems. Takayama makes this case in an Asia Pacific Memo on February 16, 2012.

Takayama makes his case very succinctly, but Finland’s status as a reference nation has come up in N American debates as well.

See for example:

If I were to start from the premise that there are things about Japanese education that could use reform, what countries would I look to? Or, what countries might I not look to?

I do think that education systems vary significantly by scale. According to Eurostat, the total number of primary and secondary students in Finland is about 1.2 mio. Japan’s comparable figure is 18 mio. This reflects the ratio of the two populations with about 5.3 mio Finns in 2010 and 127 mio Japanese. Clearly, an education system that is fifteen times as large in terms of the number of students enrolled involves different complexities than a smaller counterpart. That is not to say that there aren’t aspects of Finnish education that are worth examining in considering reforms for Japan, I’m just not convinced that Finland is the most relevant example in this regard.

Why not pick more proximate comparators? While South Korea is not even half as populous as Japan its education system operates on a scale that is much closer to Japan. Likewise France which would be an example of an education system that has some structural similarities (high degree of centralization, for example) and operates on a similar scale, though a comparison between Japan and France on comparative educational achievement would likely lead to a large-scale visitation movement from France to Japan, not the other way around.

What about Canada? Again, not quite on the population scale of Japan, but similar success to Japan…

I see the interest in Finland as primarily a faddish one will raise some questions that are wonderful raise about education elsewhere (including in all the countries mentioned in the above), but will not provide panacea.


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.

Recurring Concerns about Tutoring in Germany

Yesterday I had a chance to meet Steve Entrich, a doctoral candidate at the Univ of Potsdam near Berlin. Steve is planning to write a dissertation that will compare aspects of shadow education in Japan and Germany.

Steve presented his plans for his dissertation. In the discussion, including discussions with his supervisor, Wolfgang Lauterbach, it was clear that research on supplementary education and tutoring in Germany is going through the same development that many of us are experiencing elsewhere, i.e. suffering from the fact that our research interest seems to fall between institutional cracks, particularly in Faculties or Schools of Education where supplementary education fits neither with K-12 education (focused exclusively on formal, state-recognized schools), nor with adult education (focused on, er, adults).

However, I also learned that Nachhilfe (remedial tutoring) does attract a fair bit of periodic attention in the German press where it is largely perceived as a growing “problem”. One of the main concerns is with equity and class-specific access to educational resources. A focus on the inequality that is – at least on the surface – inherent in for-profit, fee-based supplementary education, seems to be an important “hook” to motivate this kind of research in academic contexts with a strong focus on inequality (continental European sociology, Korea, etc.)

While Nachhilfe thus shows up periodically in the German press, there is no sustained attention to this issue, nor has it become a focus for any research projects.

The discussions in Potsdam reinforced my sense that there is a great need for more exchanges among researchers with an interest in supplementary education.

Breakdown of Classrooms?

One of the several moral panics that has swept the discourse about Japanese education in the past several years has been 学級崩壊, the breakdown of classroom (discipline).

While a number of different kind of phenomena are grouped under this term, the fundamental message is that the number of unmanageable (due to student behaviour) classrooms has increased, students are loosing their respect or at least not behaving in a respectful manner toward teachers, and bullying and violence toward other students is on the rise.

Now, the OECD has released an analysis of PISA data (PDF) that looks at reports of disciplinary problems in classrooms.
Japanese responses easily top the chart at 93% of students who confirmed that “the teacher ‘never or hardly ever’ or ‘in some lessons’ has to wait a long time for students to quieten down”.

Yet another case of domestic perceptions differing wildly from a perspective on Japanese education from abroad?

Note that the average for students’ responses to this question was 72%.

The fewest disciplinary problems were reported in: Japan, Kazakhstan, China (Shanghai only), Hong Kong, Romania. Students in the following countries reported the most problems: Argentina, Greece, Finland, Netherlands, France.

Finland? That model to all education policy-makers? Unruly, but great learners? Maybe students forgetting to turn off their Nokias.