When it comes to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it sometimes seems that there are two kinds of people in the world. The first group are eager to jet off to whichever country has topped the latest table, have a look around some model schools and generally schmooze with bureaucrats from that country’s education ministry. The second group sees no benefit in PISA at all, declaring it part of a global conspiracy against good teachers by big business, Satan or perhaps a coalition of the two known as ‘neoliberalism’. I would like to stake a claim for a third camp.
My view takes a little more explanation so please bear with me. The fact that one country performs above another in a league table is pretty meaningless. There could be all sorts of reasons for this. For instance, all thing being equal, poorer people tend to do less well educationally than rich people and so countries with more poor people should be expected to do worse, even with an equally effective education system. That may seem obvious but there are other, more subtle, factors. Some countries, for instance, have many more students participating in out-of-school tuition. If you jet off to one of those countries, visit their model schools and then try to replicate those schools back home, you may be doomed to failure because you are not replicating the thing that makes the difference.
However, trends within schools systems, such as the association between different teaching practices and PISA performance, are interesting because they control for cultural factors (well, to an extent – this is messy data). And although we might not want to look at a school system’s ranking and conclude too much, we might be able to infer something from the direction of travel. If a system is improving relative to the control group (again, loosely defined) of the OECD average then it might be due to some policies that we can identify. And ditto if it is declining.
Finland is declining:
Yes, Finland still does well compared to many other countries – and let me be clear that I wish the students of Finland every success – but it is tracking downwards. So why do people keep going on about it? Why do folks who have spent around five minutes thinking about education declare that we should aim to copy Finland? It’s not even as if Finland is at the top of the PISA tables. In 2015, Finland was 13th in Maths, 5th in Science and 4th in Reading. Singapore beat Finland on all three counts and Hong Kong did on two. I wouldn’t advocate trying to copy these two countries either but something funny is going on. Why are people so keen on Finland, forsaking all others?
The answer is that, of all the countries near the top of PISA, Finland is currently pursuing the most ideologically correct strategies. If you read about the recent history of education in Finland then it might seem like an odd choice. There has been quite a lot of standardisation and its only relatively recently that some of this has been given away – which may be a factor in its PISA decline. The irony is that the very stuff Finland is being lauded for, such as its alleged focus on ‘capabilities’, might be the cause of its decline. I use the word ‘alleged’ because I think there is a fair amount of projection going on when it comes to Finland – I find it hard to square the idea that it is the groovecat hipster of the education world with tales of didactic classrooms and heavy textbook use.
And this is where the tales becomes a little dark.
I recently commented on a piece in The Conversation and the Finland line was presented in response. When I queried why we should look at Finland and not other high performing countries, the person I was discussing this with suggested, “Interestingly when some comparisons are made to other countries such as South Korea, their youth suicide rates are raised as a concern for adopting a similar system of high-stakes assessment.”
Personally, I would never try to draw a causal link between suicide and education because of the likely effect of cultural factors. I also wouldn’t necessarily point to South Korea as an example to follow given its own decline in PISA results. However, something about this statement bothered me and I decided to look into it further.
So far, the latest I can find on youth suicide is this data from the OECD dating back to 2012/3. While teenage suicide does appear to be rising in South Korea and declining in Finland, the rate in Finland is actually higher than in South Korea, with 10.1 deaths per 100,000 in Finland compared to 8.2 in Korea. The OECD average is 6.4 deaths per 100,000 and, as an aside, we could probably discuss at length whether it is valid to compare rates in this way.
Following this up leaves me with this interesting question to ponder: Why would someone promote education in Finland, know that youth suicide rates in South Korea are relatively high and yet not know that, according to the available data, they are even higher in Finland?