The word of education is awash with data – particularly testing results. While I personally have significant reservations about both the use and usefulness of much of this data, due to a combination of   the harm it can do to students, teachers, parents and schools as well as the often unsound assumptions upon which it is based, it has to be acknowledged that not everyone shares my views.  However, I will  put my concerns aside  for the moment and share this video explaining the biggest number cruncher of them all – the PISA testing program.  It is done in the style of the poplar RSA Animates series  and surprisingly, despite being essentially an advertisement for PISA,  it is entertaining ... and also contains some though producing insights – hence the posting here.

Most educators are familiar with the Programme for International Student Assessment – otherwise known as PISA.  Some may not be aware that PISA was actually conceived and is managed by the OECD – the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.  It often passes unnoticed that this body is not primarily concerned with education.   As well as providing a vehicle by which the school systems of  participating countries can be ranked,  PISA  has made some observations based upon educational practices and results from around the world.

Many of these are now entrenched in the educational psyche – for example,  girls tend to outperform boys all over the world in literacy while the reverse is true for mathematics.   An equally “obvious” fact, but one which  is significant to have confirmed at this level, is that home background is a major influence on student success.  It is nice to have this confirmed by PISA (given the economic slant of the OECD) – perhaps people will bear this in mind when evaluating school performance.   

There are other “obvious” findings that it is pleasing to see confirmed – that students with fewer books at home are less likely to read.  An associated fact presented in the video is that children from “advantaged” families hear 30 000 000 more words over the course of their school years than students from “less advantaged families” ; you read correctly - 30 million.  The impact of this upon literacy performance need not be expanded upon here.   The fact that a conservative organisation like the OECD confirms the impact of home background on student success is significant – and well worth remembering during the next phase of “teacher bashing”.

Some other areas mentioned in the video include;

  • Early tracking (aka “streaming”) of students is NOT associated with higher PISA scores.
  • Having students repeat grades is NOT associated with higher PISA scores.
  • The “best” teachers tend to gravitate towards the “better schools” – meaning those students who need educational support the least get the best educators (a serious omission here for me was the absence of a definition of what constituted the “best” teachers – but, definitions aside, this is a significant statement).
  • All students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds CAN perform at high levels when given the opportunity.


Perhaps the most interesting observation mined from the PISA data set  was this observation – that students from “less advantaged areas” that attended schools situated in “more advantaged areas” tended to do as well as their classmates.   Let’s unpack this a little – in this video PISA confirm that home background impacts significantly on student learning...but then indicate that students from “less advantaged” areas  can outperform their neighbours and match their  more advantaged classmates by attending school in more “advantaged” areas.   If this is true, and given the statistical rigour of PISA I’d suggest that, numerically at least ,this is a valid finding, then schools need to examine how this is possible.  The implication is that schools may be doing things that counter unhelpful social issues. 


It is tempting to assume that the schools in “advantaged areas” are doing things that do not occur in “less advantaged areas”.  If this is true then the solution is obvious – mimic the practices of advantaged schools.  However, this is simplistic – there are high performing teachers and outstanding educational practices in “less advantaged” areas which do not produce the same test performance as their more wealthy equivalents.  


Perhaps we should consider some of the non-tangibles of teaching and education – things that PISA can’t measure. Why are these students attending schools “out of area”?  Does this display some perception and ambition on the part of the parents? Is this transmitted to their children? Is this reflected in the work habits of the young people concerned?  So... following this train of thought,  do  the statistical findings of PISA support the wide spread “truism”  that family values and attitudes towards education are key variables  determining success at school?  Is achievement more to do with attitudes than with ability?


The video runs for about 12 minutes – but the contemplation of the issues it raises will last much longer.


(Anyone interested in  pursuing the notion that achievement is more to do with attitude than ability might like to my July 4th post “The more I practice the luckier I get. Mindset – Carol Dweck”.  Either go to the July archive folder or click here.

Views: 95

Tags: PISA, school, success, testing

Comment by Steve Hargadon on August 1, 2011 at 8:43am
Thanks so much for this post.  Fascinating.  Have you read anything that discusses this from the standpoint of family support structures, or correlations between social programs that support families and achievement?
Comment by nevbar1 on August 1, 2011 at 6:38pm

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the response. 

There are a couple of things along similar lines that might interest you.  The Carol Dweck book "Growth Mindset" is really worthwhile in exploring the impact of an individual's attitudes on performance in a range of areas.  While you get the sense when reading this book that Carol has “cherry picked” her “real world” examples she also cites her own clinical trials that demonstrate the impact of attitude on learning – and she has a section specifically for teachers. 

Another thing you might be interested in is the ORIN framework – which is an approach designed to use in “less advantaged” (aka “poor”) communities.  This was an approach developed in England to work with parents of pre-school aged children. (The idea being that skilling up the parents would eventually be reflected in the children.  It provides some scaffolding in which to provide a program.)  It isn’t an exact fit with the scope of my blog post but it does seem to be a rare example of an effective early intervention strategy to support families.

Follow this link for a ppt on it.


Hope this helps – and thanks for your interest.




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