PISA Startles Again

Regular readers of these postings will know that I have taken issue with the stereotype of Asian students as memorizing machines who cannot work through problems that they are unfamiliar with. I therefore welcome the release by PISA of its latest results confirming that this stereotype is false. I will explore their findings along this line below, but first I want to report some really surprising data of another kind that can be found in the linked report[1].

These data show that while there is a strong positive link between performance in problem-solving and the use of computers at home, the same is not true of the use of computers at school. In fact, only a third of the PISA “economies” showed a significant positive correlation between computer use at school and scores on the problem-solving test. Most “economies” showed no correlation or a negative correlation. What is more, PISA data show that “differences in performance on computer-based assessments are not larger than differences in performance on paper-based assessments, across students of varying familiarity with computers.”

What this means is that schools and school districts that are jumping up their class sizes and teacher-student ratios in order to buy computers for the schoolhouse may be spending a lot of money chasing a will-o’-the-wisp “classroom of the future.” I have written about the lack of research behind the rush to computers and other Marvels of Technology, but now we have some credible research by a disinterested international organization suggesting that it is far from a guaranteed good thing. What is needed first is to discover why some countries’ classroom computers help their students while others’ do not.

It would also be nice to discover why some classrooms lead their students to better problem-solving than others; and so we come back to the main business of the report. Which 15-year-olds solved unfamiliar problems best on the PISA test? In order, those from Singapore, Korea, Japan, and China (comprising Macau, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei). Immediately after these top performers comes Canada. The US is somewhat higher than the OECD average; but lest we draw too much comfort from that, we must examine OECD’s “Country Note” on the US, which advises us that schools in Massachusetts, widely regarded as the best in the US, produce math students two years behind those in Shanghai.

And OECD has offered some concrete advice to American schools: Adopt the Common Core, which appears to promise better scores in PISA math tests. The catch, of course, is that it must be adopted and implemented carefully after due planning and in the needed stages—not the way New York is doing it.

[1] pp. 113 – 114

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