Winning the PISA Race – how hard can it be?

The Australian Government has justified expenditure on school funding reforms on the basis of our falling relative performance on the OECD international Tests  – the most well known of which is the PISA testing.

I appreciate the point that investing in equity in education will – if well invested  – also improve outcomes in terms of educational excellence. This is obvious  because the biggest “gap in performance”, in terms of the distance between performance outcomes and performance potential, is not with those students already financially, socially and intellectually indulged.  They already achieve at levels relatively aligned to their potential.

No, the biggest performance gap is among those students who start school behind their peers, have less access to early learning experiences through quality childcare and preschool programs, experience less family stability, have parent(s) who are struggling to support their children in terms of quality time, financial and home stability and exposure to quality educational experiences, go to schools with a concentration of students in similar circumstances, have less than their fair share of highly experienced teachers, experience higher levels of staff turn over, more greenhorn principals and poorer, educationally relevant, school facilities.

Its great that we have at last acknowledge that ‘ their loss’ is our loss – the loss of so many potentially creative successful citizens, employees, managers, and leaders.

However, I am not a fan of using PISA as a proxy for measuring this Return on Investment.  It is misleading. It could  distort our investment priorities and our school and classroom priorities.  Many others have written about this.  It is also a moving target as results could improve in absolute terms but still slide down the list in comparative terms. So in this sense it is also risky.

We  know that according to Campbell’s Law as soon as you make a god of a particular metric, it becomes distorted as everyone games the system.

So here is my ‘real politic’ set of options for clever gaming the system to achieve this goal painlessly, while minimising unintended consequences and with no risk.  Choose your game-plan Australia.

Suggestion No. One:  Just test the ACT.  It has the lowest proportion of low ICSEA schools, no schools with a high Indigenous population, no remote or very remote schools, many of its ESL population are foreign dignitaries, it has a high level of preschool attendance, and it is the National Capital.

Shanghai is held up as a PISA star but it is important to note that as large as this city might be it is still only a city.  It is not China and it is obviously a key centre for politics, business and industry.  Its results are unlikely to be reflective of China as a country.

Suggestion No. Two:  Establish a group of specific purpose ‘benchmark’ test schools across Australia.  This proposal is based on the logic of Charter Schools in the US.  Any student ‘above a minimum competency standard’ would be eligible to apply – after-all populating them with geniuses would be too obvious.  Selection could be based on an application and a ballot that ensures a spread of SES and other student demographic features – so they could be seen as schools that are representative of the Australian population.  They could be well funded using the Gonski parameters of course.  In applying to these schools parents would need to understand that – a) commitment is required of them and their children and b) teaching would be focused on the PISA testing areas as a priority.  For some parents this could be seen as a ‘ free private school’ – a good deal.  Students who pull the results down could be gently, informally counseled out – all off -the-record of course.

Suggestion No. Three:  Pay schools by results.  Schools could apply to be test sites and paid reward funds for high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Four:  Pay teachers by results.  Teachers could apply to be test classrooms and paid reward funds for high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Five:  Pay parents/students by results.  Parents/students could apply to be test subjects – quite outside the schooling process and paid reward funds high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Six:  Exempt all ICSEA schools below 850. I have heard an unverifiable rumour that Canada exempts its ‘reservation’ schools from the PISA testing sampling, but in Australia we over-sample for our own data collection /policy purposes.  We should cease this immediately and select our sample schools from schools that will not pull our results down.

Alternatively we could drop this PISA goal altogether and instead put our full backing into supporting teacher capacity development, building quality support tools for teacher feedback and self reflection based on classroom practice, reduce face to face teaching time in order to increase teacher planning and collaboration time, restructure teacher career pathways around the teacher standards, develop comprehensive strategies for improving the equitable distribution of highly experienced teachers across schools and implement Gonski.

We are already doing a lot to support this better pathway.  All we really need to do is change our goals and reconsider high stakes testing.  I know which way give us the best returns on investment.


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