The narrative about PISA and equity is flawed

I am in favour of making Australia’s education system more equitable. To this end, I am convinced by the argument that we should target resources at students who are the most in need; an argument supported by the Gonski review. However, the idea that equity is the root cause of Australia’s absolute decline in achievement on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is clearly flawed.

This argument was articulated in an article for The Conversation which has since been syndicated to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website. It has been shared approvingly by education academics on social media. I would therefore suggest it is representative of the response of the education establishment. In the article, the authors make clear their view that the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed on the basis of these results is that of educational equity:

“Australia has one of the most segregated schooling systems in the world, and the OECD data provide a strong correlation between high-performing systems such as Singapore and factors of social cohesion and equity…

The challenge for policymakers, schools and teachers is how to respond to increasing pressure to lift test results on PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN, while also addressing systemic inequality in order to ensure that every Australian student is given access to a meaningful education.

Equitable funding of schools, including redistribution to schools serving disadvantaged communities, remains a pressing policy issue in Australia.”

And yet this seems at odds with data released in the past few days by Andreas Schleicher:


According to PISA’s own index of equity, Australia is somewhere in the middle. Countries such as Singapore manage to have both worse levels of equity and higher PISA science scores.

Clearly, these are two separate issues. Equity and performance in PISA are independent of each other. We should not assume that increasing equity will lead to an increase in PISA performance. This is obvious when you think about it because one way of increasing equity would be to diminish the performance of those who do the best at the moment. Perhaps we could argue that higher PISA scores are not worth having without greater equity? I would like both but better educational outcomes are worth having even if we have no increase in equity because they are likely to drive growth and innovation that will benefit everyone.

If we examine the path towards greater equity then I’m not even convinced that the educational establishment knows how to achieve it. If we target more money at the disadvantaged then what are we going to use it for?

Noel Pearson is an Australian indigenous leader who has introduced Direct Instruction (DI) programmes to indigenous community schools. He has hit opposition from the Queensland Department of Education and his detractors like to highlight that Direct Instruction is an American programme and suggest it is culturally inappropriate. In addition to this, he has recently been accused of making offensive statements in his dealings with people. I don’t wish to comment on these accusations but this provides the context for an article in the Guardian where he accuses white liberals of ‘soft bigotry’. He makes a powerful point:

“Pearson criticised the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, for her comment that Aurukun, when temporarily closed this year over teacher safety concerns, should look like ‘a normal state school’.

Pearson, who has since withdrawn his organisation from the Aurukun school after an impasse with the government over the role of DI, said: ‘What thoughtful person would think that ‘normal state schools’ have been serving children like those in Aurukun in decades past?'”

This is a key point. What exactly do the establishment have in mind to improve equity of educational outcomes? More of the same? Why have they not picked-up on the biggest story from the PISA results – the link between particular teaching methods and performance?


7 thoughts on “The narrative about PISA and equity is flawed

  1. Mike says:

    “It’s da inequality wot dunnit” is the standard response of the academic nouveau-left to just about any social problem these days. There was a similar piece in response to the PISA results in the Guardian a couple of days ago.

    The constant and ongoing debasement of curricula (particularly in maths and science) is, of course, merely a trivial detail…

  2. David says:

    They’re saying the same about France, despite ED Hirsch making France’s changes in teaching the centerpiece of his new book:

    Interestingly, this blogger who has supported inquiry based learning in the past for mathematics, writes a very good piece on why PISA may force a rethink:

  3. Pingback: PISA, the phonics check and ‘post-truth’ | Filling the pail

  4. Pingback: Day 62 – Pro D Pasi Sahlberg | BC Physics 180

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