Yong Zhao Explains What Is Wrong with PISA

Yong Zhao posted the first of five blogs about the faulty claims of PISA, the international test that false reformers love to cite as evidence that our schools are failing and our kids don’t work hard enough. The five blog posts are drawn from Zhao’s much awaited new book. If you have not read his other books, order them now. Catching Up or Leading the Way and World Class Learners. You will enjoy them.

Zhao calls PISA “one of the most destructive forces in education today. It creates illusory models of excellence, romanticizes misery, glorifies educational authoritarianism, and most serious, directs the world’s attention to the past instead of pointing to the future. In the coming weeks, I will publish five blog posts detailing each of my “charges,” adapted from parts of my book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education.”

In this post, Zhao demonstrates one of the misleading claims made by Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA.

Zhao writes:

“Andreas Schleicher has on many occasions promoted the idea that Chinese students take responsibilities for their own learning, while in “many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves.” France is his prime example: “More than three-quarters of the students in France … said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky.” Students in Shanghai felt just the opposite, believing that “they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed.” Schleicher maintains that this difference in attitude contributed to the gap between Shanghai, ranked first, and France, ranked 25th.”

Zhao shows by citing PISA rankings that this claim by Schleicher does not withstand scrutiny. It is false.

He writes:

“What’s intriguing is that the countries whose students are least likely to blame their teachers all have a more authoritarian cultural tradition than the countries whose students are most likely to blame their teachers. On the first list, Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Shanghai-China, Japan, and Viet Nam share the Confucian cultural tradition. And although Japan and Korea are now considered full democracies, the rest of the countries on the list are not[3]. In contrast, the list of countries with the highest percentage of students blaming their teachers for their failures ranked much higher in the democracy index. Norway ranked first; Sweden ranked second, and Switzerland was number seven. With the single exception of Italy, all 10 countries where students were most likely to blame their teachers ranked above 30 on the Democracy Index (and Italy ranked 32nd).

“One conclusion to draw from this analysis: students in more authoritarian education systems are more likely to blame themselves and less likely to question the authority—the teacher—than students in more democratic educational systems. An authoritarian educational system demands obedience and does not tolerate questioning of authority. Just like authoritarian parents [2], authoritarian education systems have externally defined high expectations that are not necessarily accepted by students intrinsically but require mandatory conformity through rigid rules and sever punishment for noncompliance. More important, they work very hard to convince children to blame themselves for failing to meet the expectations. As a result, they produce students with low confidence and low self-esteem.

“On the PISA survey of students’ self-concept in math, students in Japan, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Viet Nam, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, and Shanghai-China had the lowest self-concepts in the world, despite their high PISA math scores[4]. A high proportion of students in these educational systems worried that they “will get poor grades in mathematics.” More than 70% of students in Korea, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Viet Nam, Shanghai-China, and Hong Kong-China—in contrast to less than 50% in Austria, United States, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands—“agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they worry about getting poor grades in math[5].”

And he concludes:

“In other words, what Schleicher has been praising as Shanghai’s secret to educational excellence is simply the outcome of an authoritarian education.

“As discussed previously, Chinese education has been notoriously authoritarian for thousands of years. In an authoritarian system, the ruler and the ruling class (previously the emperors; today, the government) have much to gain when people believe it is their own effort, and nothing more, that makes them successful. No difference in innate abilities or social circumstances matters as long as they work hard. If they cannot succeed, they only have themselves to blame. This is an excellent and convenient way for the authorities to deny any responsibility for social equity and justice, and to avoid accommodating differently talented people. It is a great ploy that helped the emperors convince people to accept the inequalities they were born into and obey the rules. It was also designed to give people a sense of hope, no matter how slim, that they can change their own fate by being indoctrinated through the exams.”

Our policymakers wish our students and teachers would think, act, study, and behave like their counterparts in Singapore and Korea. But first they will have to change America’s irreverent, anti-authoritarian culture. Good luck with that!

Comedy Central, are you listening?

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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