Sean Slade

Thoughts from #PISA2012, Take Two

PISA assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. The results should be used as one measure of a country's overall evaluation of its education system and not serve as a league table. Yet information and greater understanding are there if we care to look and discuss the results honestly.

These quotes are from a December 3 post written by Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Secretary General, for the OECD's educationtoday blog.

Bold italics have been added by us for emphasis!

Even those who claim that the relative standing of countries in PISA mainly reflects social and cultural factors must now concede that improvement in education is possible.

Indeed, of the 65 participating countries, 40 saw improvement in at least one of PISA's three subject areas. These countries did not change their culture, or the composition of their populations, nor did they fire their teachers; they changed their education policies and practices.

Part of the issue lies with students living in social disadvantage, and many school systems amplify that disadvantage.

Attracting the most talented teachers and school leaders to the most challenging classrooms will therefore be key to making headway.

A belief that all students can achieve at a high level and a willingness to engage all stakeholders in education—including students, through such channels as seeking student feedback on teaching practices—are other hallmarks of successful school systems.

But the challenges of school systems are not just about poor kids in poor neighbourhoods, but about many kids in many neighbourhoods.

It is important that raising excellence and improving equity are not seen as conflicting policy objectives.

The status quo has many protectors, and countries need to be bold in thinking and in execution to effect real changes. Obviously, we can't copy and paste school systems wholesale.

How do countries pay their teachers, compared to other highly skilled workers? Would you want your child to be a teacher rather than a lawyer? How do the media talk about teachers?

The fact that students in some countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education.

In the past, different students were taught in similar ways. Today's top school systems embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices; they realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents and they personalise educational experiences.

And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff.

Not least, they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers.

High performers have also moved on from administrative control and accountability to professional forms of accountability and work organisation.

The goal of the past was standardisation and compliance; now, top performers enable teachers to be inventive.

In the past, the policy focus was on providing education; in today's top school systems, it's on outcomes, shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school, about creating networks of innovation.

Last but not least, high-performing systems tend to align policies and practices across all aspects of the system, they make them coherent over sustained periods of time, and they see that they are consistently implemented.

This is food for thought for every country as they discuss, disseminate, and debate the results from this one set of data. And, again, let's not forget our favorite quote: "PISA is a great servant, but a bad master" (Peter Mortimore).

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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