What can we learn from PISA?

Last night I had the privilege of attending a pre-release briefing of the latest PISA data from the 2012 surveys. As has now been well reported in this morning's media, the New Zealand data reveals a drop in student rankings, with the "top spots" being taken now by predominantly south east asian countries. 

No doubt there well be pages of speculative judgements now appear about what this data actually tells us, with opinions varying depending on the motivation and agendas of the commentators – including politicians wanting to secure a political advantage, educators arguing for more investment in PD, unions arguing for better pay and conditions to improve teacher quality, academics debating the validity and reliability of the data and reporters looking for a good headline to sell more papers. 

My view is simply that engaging constructively with data like this can do no harm to a profession that is, like many others, facing huge challenges to cater for the increasing diversity we face in our schools. (Is it a coincidence that the latest census data was also released yesterday, revealing the increasingly diverse and changing ethnic and cultural makeup of our society?)

One of the interesting points that emerged from the data for me was that New Zealand has one of the highest scores for in-school variation in terms of student achievement, that is, students at the same school can be achieveing quite differently depending on which class they are in. This is not a new observation – it appeared as one of the key findings in John Hattie's work.


The graphic at left looks at differences in achievement that occur within schools and between schools and how New Zealand compares with other countries. (Click on it for an enlarged version). To some extent how much difference there is in achievement between and within schools is related to the type of education system.  This needs to be taken into account when making comparisons with other countries.

New Zealand stands out because of larger differences within schools compared to countries in a similar position with respect to between school differences. This means that there are larger differences in the average performance of New Zealand schools compared to schools such as in Finland (second to last on the graph).

Countries that have relatively large differences within schools will tend to have students with a wide range of abilities in many of their schools. Between 2003 and 2012 there have been small increases in the differences in New Zealand students’ mathematics performance between schools, and small declines in the differences within schools. 

This has me thinking about an important way we need to respond to the challenges this data presents us with. One of the things that will inevitably follow the release of this data is a call for improving what happens at schools, and in particular, a call to improve the quality of teachers and teaching. (The Minister of Education announced this week a review of professional learning and development and the establishment of a Professional Learning and Development Advisory Group.)

On the one hand teachers become an easy target – but on the other their proficiency and skill is one of the key influences on student achievement, making teacher quality an important area to address. So – no doubt we will now see a lot of activity targetting teachers, aiming at improving their professional competence, particularly in the areas of literacy, numeracy and science. 

The data on in-school variance reminds me, however, that the solution lies not in targetting individual teachers, but in taking a whole school approach, and ensuring that individual teachers are collaboratively renewing their practice to achieve a whole of system improvement in student achievement. 

This point is highlighted very well in a publication from NZCER, titled "Swimming out of our depth?" in which the following appears:

Today’s teachers, if they are to meet the needs of 21st century learners, need to develop what they know, but they also need to develop how they know. The 21st century learning literature focuses on the need to develop students’ cognitive, inter‐ and intra‐personal capacities: however, a necessary precursor to this is that teachers’ capacity for, and awareness of, their own learning needs to be developed. Moreover, as Fullan (2005) points out, changing individual teachers will not be enough.

Change needs to take place across the system, through purposeful interaction between individuals at all levels. Twenty‐first century teacher professional development needs to combine and integrate individual and organisational development: it needs to build individual learning, but it also needs to focus on individuals working together—to build their current “community of practice” as teachers, but also to move forward together in “learning communities”.

So let's sift through and engage with the PISA data. Let's participate in the professional conversations that follow, and not be distracted by the media beat-up. And let's find ways we can improve what we're doing in our schools to raise student achievement. But let's not do it alone! Let's see more of this happening at a whole school and whole of community level. 

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