The impressive scores of students in China and Estonia in the recently released Program for International Student Assessment or PISA have attracted a lot of attention.
Started in 2000 and administered every three years to a sampling of 15-year-olds in 79 participating countries and economies, PISA is a two-hour test on reading, math and science.
The performance in the United States on PISA remained flat this year with the exception of science, where there was an uptick. Our top students – those scoring at the highest levels – improved, but our lowest academic achievers, also our poorest children, struggled.
“Students at higher levels are doing well. Students at the bottom are declining,” said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, on a webinar this morning on the lessons of PISA. “Whatever is happening in the United States is not the answer for all the students.”
In light of Carr’s comments, it would make sense for America to look for answers in what China, the world’s top performer, and Estonia, Europe’s top entry, have done to boost their schools.
But would American parents like what they saw?
Students in Estonia return home to hours of homework; one education official said 17 hours a week is not unusual. Many Chinese students go from school to tutoring sessions.
In writing about education for decades, I have seen an evolution in how American parents view school. It used to be that children were expected to conform to the rules and approaches of the school. Now, there are far more demands for greater differentiation, less homework and fewer tests, which is not the case in the highest performing nations. Finland, a country celebrated for easing the pressure in its classrooms, granting students more choices and limiting homework, lost ground again this year on PISA and experienced a widening achievement gap, raising questions about its lighter touch.
When a Welsh publication sought out how Estonia, a country on the Baltic Sea with 1.3 million residents, leapfrogged over the rest of Europe, it interviewed Estonians in the United Kingdom who described their schooling as serious business. One young woman working on a doctorate at Cambridge said, “That maybe a relic from Soviet times but the students have to learn, and the learning is not fun always... For myself as a child, I would say that almost nobody really liked going to school [but] it was kind of inevitable.”
As Estonian World reported: “...the recipe for success in the Estonian basic education system consists of motivated students, hard-working and professional teachers and supporting homes. Although the success tastes sweet, there is still a lack of one ingredient – joy – and this is the real challenge for Estonia.”
The webinar noted that Estonia, which broke from the Soviet Union and re-established its independence in 1990, sought education guidance from its neighbor Finland.
Like Finland, Estonia emphasizes equity in its schools; it doesn’t track students by ability and maintains a foundational belief that all children can learn. As a result, Estonia has one of the smallest gaps in achievement between rich and poor kids. But Estonia apparently did not follow Finland’s example in homework. Compared to other countries in the PISA including Estonia, Finnish students report light homework demands.
In querying test takers on homework, PISA found more advantaged students do more homework. Chinese teens – whose math scores put them four years ahead of U.S. peers – devote the most hours to homework.
Critics contend the four Chinese provinces that participated in the PISA were cherrypicked. They are China’s most stable and affluent regions and that, say critics, provides China an edge. But PISA says even poor kids from these provinces, which together contain 180 million people, outperform peers around the world, and that the average family incomes in these provinces, while high for China, are still below those in some other developed nations.
Researchers who have studied Chinese education systems have noted that students spend far more time on schoolwork than in other countries. In a recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald, a 16-year-old Chinese student on an exchange in Australia noted he had to work 20 hours a week on math homework in China, but only three hours a week in Sydney.
Chinese parents routinely pay for after-school tutors; a report last year by the Chinese Ministry of Education found more than 60% of primary school students attend tutoring to bolster their classroom instruction.
Asked what American might learn from China during today’s webinar, Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the PISA exam, cited its commitment to teacher quality. He said China dispatches top teachers to its most disadvantaged schools. That is not true in many countries, including the U.S., where poorer schools get less resources and less experienced teachers, he said.
If the choice is between lower class size or a quality teacher in the classroom in China, Schleicher said, “They go with the qualified teachers.” And those teachers are treated as professionals; they are given time to confer with colleagues, design innovative lesson plans and do research, he said.
The Chinese are also far more reconciled to high-stakes testing, including the incredibly stressful exam for college admission, the gaokao.
The gaokao or “high exam” is taken by 10 million students each year in June and lasts up to three days. In the areas around exam centers, construction work is paused, planes diverted and drivers forbidden to honk their horns, all to protect students from distractions.
One of the gaokao tests this year contained this reflection on which students were asked to compose an essay: "All things have their own nature. Water tastes light, while salt is salty. If you add water to water it is still water, if you add salt to salt, it is still salt. Sour, sweet, bitter, spicy and salty, those five tastes coexist in harmony, so do human beings."
Another question asked students to calculate a man's height by using the golden ratio of the Venus de Milo: "If someone meets the golden ratio, with legs of 105 centimeters long and a distance of 26 centimeters from the top of his head to the bottom of his neck, what is his height?"
I am not sure American kids or their parents are ready for what Estonia and China demand of their students. What do you think?
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