Building better schools – what do we value most?

"In a global economy it's no longer national improvement that's the benchmark for success, but what makes the best performing education systems internationally."

I've spent a lot of time in the midst of discussions about the future of schools and schooling in recent weeks – something I enjoy doing. This is particularly significant in Christchurch as many communities are facing the challenge of change, through rebuilding of their schools, school mergers or closures etc. A central part of the discussions here inevitably leads back to the differences in what we value about education, and the beliefs we have about what an effective education system/school should be like.  

In NZ we're constantly being referred to the PISA reports as the basis for thinking about change and the things we should be doing to improve our education system, so it was timely that I came cross the video above of the OECD's Andreas Schleicher speaking about some of the background and findings of the PISA studies. It's always useful to hear from someone whe has had responsibility for developing the measures that are used in these studies explain the rationale and importance of what is being reported. 

The intention of the PISA approach is to measure knowledge and skills of people directly – testing whether they can extrapolate from what they've learned in school and apply this in novel situations. To quote Scheicher, "the test of truth in life is whether not whether we can remember what we learned at school, but whether we're prepared for change."

Scheicher claims that PISA has shown what is possible in education – helping countries create achieveable targets, to create better policies, and make strategic choices in terms of investment and outcomes. NZ has certainly bought into this, with the PISA results being quoted regularly to underpin various changes in national strategy and policy. 

One of the commonly recurring themes in all of this is the level of investment people feel needs to be made in education, usually to do with demands for more money to be spent. The PISA evidence shows that spending on education accounts for less than 20% of the difference between countries. It illustrates tha how countries spend their money matters a lot more than how much they invest in education.

According to Schleicher the leaders in high performing education systems demonstrate two key attributes. Firstly, they have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education and their future, placing a higher value on education than consumption. Secondly, they demonstrate a belief that all children are capable of success, and embrace diversity, personalised approaches etc. In the video, Schleicher illustrates how two countries that are performing about equal on the PISA measures actually have completely different focii for their investment, reflecting the difference in ppolitical and societal values in each country. It's not a case of what's wrong or right, no formula that will guarantee success, rather, an agreement about and commitment to the underpinning philosophy and values/beliefs that define the approach. 

The challenge for us at the school level, community level and whole of system level, is to spend the time required to responsibly and thoughtfully engage in discussions around what it is we really value about education, and then design and build our schools and our systems around that, rather than naively continuing to invest in what we've always done, or simply lurch from one 'good idea' to another in the hope that it will remediate the perceived shortcomings. 


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