Rebooting School

Following up on my previous rant about the PISA tests, Yong Zhao had a wonderful post about them from a few years ago that is still very relevant. In it he imagines a great educational conspiracy: “I would suggest that PISA is a secrete plan of Western powers to derail China’s education reforms.”.

However, Zhao notes evidence from right here in our backyard that argues against the existence of such a plot.

Seeing the damaging effects of PISA on Western education systems debunks my conspiracy theory. PISA, rather than an evil ploy hashed out by Western powers to keep East Asian countries from being innovative, is an ironic tragedy of the 21st Century born out of ignorance. The genuine anxiety over their low rankings, the sincere admirations (or envy) of Shanghai’s status, the eager actions to borrow from top performers, and the authentic efforts to emulate Asian education are all evidence that political leaders of many Western nations, particularly the U.S., England, and Australia did not work together to use PISA to derail education reforms in Asia. They are truly concerned about improving their own education, but they have been misguided by PISA.

There is no question that education in the West, and for that matter everywhere in the world, needs transformational changes, in the face of transformative changes in the world. Education in the U.S., for example, is far from adequate to prepare citizens for the future. It is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm. However PISA is not offering such a paradigm. The top performers of PISA are simply better implementation of the old paradigm—the Prussian industrial model of education, which many Western education systems, including the U.S. system, are based on.

In other words, the PISA does not only have the effect of discouraging East Asian systems from abandoning their old paradigm, but also luring Western countries to fix the old paradigm by shaming them for not having been as perfectly obsolete as their Asian counterparts. It keeps them fixated on things (e.g., test scores) that matter little for the future, while neglecting the work they should be doing—inventing a new paradigm.

The US certainly has been “misguided by PISA”. We look at international rankings such as these without understanding how little they actually say about both our system of public education and those of the other countries. Even worse, we fail to question whether the data they produce is relevant to efforts to improve that system.

However, for me, the key concept in Zhao’s post (taken from his excellent book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?”) is the middle sentence in the middle paragraph: “It [education] is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm.”

Reproducing the old educational paradigm in structures like charter schools, automated learning systems, or online classes is not reform. None of the common tweaks offered as “change” will prepare kids for a new, transformational, and very uncertain future.

We need to start at the beginning. We need a serious discussion about the purpose of school and the role it plays in our society. One that can draw on traditions, but cannot be rooted there. A discussion that includes students, dropouts, recent graduates, parents and other important stakeholders, not just politicians and business people.

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