News | Published February 19 2020

PISA results paint an incomplete picture, the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s Ken Muir says

This article was written from the perspective of Ken Muir, chief executive and registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

Although we have now begun the new year in earnest within our schools, colleges and other education establishments across Scotland, as well as looking forward to what lies ahead throughout the course of 2020, it is still worth reflecting on the year behind us.

2019 ended with the predictable brouhaha brought about by the publication of the OECD’s 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] results. The “Scottish education is improving/staying the same/declining” debate filled many column inches and many hours of discussion in the media.

Having witnessed Scotland’s performance and the reaction in Scottish education to every set of PISA results since their introduction almost two decades ago, there are two overriding lessons I have learned.

The first is that the PISA scores tell only part of the story. They are not a measure of the overall quality of an education system. That is not being complacent; it is being realistic and is something that the OECD now recognises as it looks to create a wider set of PISA “tests” that measure a greater range of skills and capacities, including empathy, problem-solving and creative-thinking.

Let us all remember that the testing of reading, mathematics and science skills of 15 and 16-year-olds across 79 countries, economies and regions comprising OECD member states, as well as other ‘volunteer’ systems such as Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Macao and Hong Kong, constitutes a very small sub-set of what any education system delivers for its learners.

The second lesson is that PISA is as much a measure of culture and context as it is of educational attainment. Culture and context are very different across the 79 PISA participants. As culture and context differ, so too do the challenges facing education systems and the resultant outcomes for learners – however they are measured. Finland’s performance in PISA demonstrates this well.

In the first round of PISA testing in 2000, Finland surprised the world when it topped the global league table in reading and excelled in other categories. However, the latest PISA results show a fall in Finland’s average score, a continuing long-term negative trend apparent since 2006.

Finland’s 2019 results show that the gaps between the most and least advantaged students are widening, something particularly distressing for a country that prides itself on equality. The gender gap in reading proficiency in Finland is now one of the widest among the countries taking part in PISA and the impact of socio-economic background on reading skills has become more pronounced.

So, what has changed in Finland? Basically, the answer is culture and context. Finnish media coverage of the 2019 results points to the decline in reading being primarily attributable to an increase in the percentage of low-performing readers in the country and a cultural decline in interest in reading, most notably among boys.

Finland’s traditionally homogeneous society has changed significantly in the last 15 years with an influx of non-Finnish speaking families from the EU and other parts of the world. More than four-fifths do not speak Finnish at home, which is part of the explanation given for the gap in performance between them and native Finnish students. A further suggestion for Finland’s decline in PISA is that the Finnish economy has been declining and is currently one of the worst performing in the Eurozone.

So, it begs the question: what lessons should Scotland take from the latest round of PISA results?

Part of the answer must be a wider recognition that schools have less influence on PISA results and student outcomes than is commonly assumed. Culture and other out-of-school/college social factors, such as adult literacy and levels of inequality, matter more, meaning that even well-informed education policymakers can only make so much difference.

In terms of in-school factors, it is well known that what happens in the classroom and the relationship between student and teacher/lecturer, are the most important factors impacting on learner outcomes, and that these improve when teachers and lecturers become learners of their own teaching.

In short, what matters most is the quality of teachers and lecturers, who need to be intellectually challenged, trusted, and have room for professional growth. As we look forward to the new year ahead, we should redouble our efforts to focus on improving the quality of learning and teaching and on enhancing the professional learning of teachers and lecturers. We should use the College Standards now residing with GTC Scotland, the refreshed Professional Standards and revised Professional Code for teachers, and the opportunities they provide, to plan meaningful professional learning that will impact positively on practice and learner outcomes.

We should continue to reduce bureaucracy and workload to create time and space for greater collaborative professionalism and we should embrace the opportunities being provided through increased empowerment to schools and practitioners to enhance attainment and achievement for all learners at the local level.

On the topic of improving learner outcomes, Professor John Hattie reminded us in a previous edition of Teaching Scotland: “Don’t look for the silver bullet overseas…recognise excellence in Scotland.” 

That excellence already exists, often in areas of wider achievement well beyond those currently measured by PISA tests. Let us make a united 2020 resolution to work even more closely together to highlight, share, enhance and celebrate that excellence.

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The Parliamentary Review

February 19 2020

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