Exploring the Belgian, Finnish and Vietnamese recepies for PISA

September 18, 2014
Organized by Vleva (Flemish-European Liaison Office) and by VVOB (Vlaamse Vereniging voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking en Technische Bijstand – Education for Development). Central questions:  Is economic welfare no longer decisive for the pupils’ performances at school?  Why is Finland no longer top performing?  Does PISA lead to ‘teaching to the test’?  What about ‘soft skills’, they are not in the PISA tests? All powerpoints are available at http://www.vleva.eu/event/belgische-finse-en-vietnamese-recepten-voor-pisa

1 Judging the quality of an education system
By Roger Standaert, University Ghent
Every education system is a complex system with an amalgamation of a lot of interwoven factors. The conclusion is that PISA, and other standardized tests, are good instruments for reflection on tendencies. When interpreting the results, it is necessary to take into account the differences between education systems. Taking into account the assumptions and the limits of the tests, they can be useful for learning from each other. It is not possible to make rankings or to pronounce judgments based on the test results. A fortiori, ranking of the system in its totality are not possible.

2 Jouni Välijärvi, Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.
Limitations of standardized tests have to be recognized. Nevertheless, existing data can be analyzed and used to analyze what is happened in the Finnish Education System and in wider Finnish society. One of the tendencies of PISA is to move from measuring knowledge to measuring competences and skills. This is positive, but challenging.
Worrying evolutions:
 The top year is 2006, then there is a drop in all three domains (reading, maths, science), especially in mathematics (40 points lower, which means about one year of studies).
 More important: the variation between individual students was amongst the smallest in OECD countries in 2006. In 2012, the standard deviation increased in all three domains.
 The number of pupils at risk has doubled; however, compared to OECD average, Finland is still doing well.
 Differences between boys and girls: boys are lagging behind, the difference is increasing, favouring girls, even for mathematics and science.
 The impact of socio-economic background is growing. Traditionally Finland could be proud because of this small correlation. This evolution indicates that not only things are happening in schools, but also in societies, in families. We have to go back to the basic values of the education system.
The variation in student performance between schools and within schools remains very small. This is one of the cornerstones of the education system.
One of the challenges is how to raise motivation and self-efficacy in maths? Finnish pupils do well, but they don’t feel that they do well. How to develop a pedagogy in the classroom focusing on raising self-confidence and trust of students? Idem for reading: how to motivate pupils to read for fun?
Finland has always invested a lot in teachers initial training (min 5 year studies). However, Finland did not invest enough in in-service training. TALIS shows that Finnish teachers spend less time on professional development, and receive little feedback from principals, students and peers. On the one hand, society is respecting and valuing the teachers’ profession, on the other hand, they are left alone in their classrooms.

3 EU policy on school education and PISA
By Vladimir Garkov, European Commission.
The EU policy on school education is based on three pillars (within the OMC)
 Acquisition of key competences (key competences; reading literacy; maths, science and technology)
 Equitable education system (ESL; migrant education; ECEC)
 Supporting high-quality staff: teachers, school leaders, teacher educators
The 2010 Commission Communication ‘Key competences for a changing world’ is well represented in national curricula, but more work is needed to focus on skills and attitudes, to integrate learning across all subjects and to use assessment in the learning.
Reading literacy
The number of low achievers (not able to reach level 2 in PISA) drops down.
What has the EU done? A High Level Group on literacy has examined how to support literacy throughout lifelong learning.
The European Commission has launched ELINET to carry out country specific analysis of Member States performance in reading literacy (NGO’s and ministries of education); to organize awareness raising campaigns, to develop a European Framework of good practice and a communication platform.
Maths, science and technology
The EU significantly performs better than the US, but some member states are very low performing.
Finland is still doing very well, but worse than previous edition.
The socio -economic factor is the most important. This is important for policy makers; in some countries there is a difference corresponding to two and a half year of schooling. At the same time, from 2009 to 2012, the number of children at risk of poverty has increased, so obviously we are moving in the opposite direction, we will not reach the Europe 2020 headline target on poverty. Education will not be able to solve this!
The migrant issue is the second important factor. Non-immigrant kids have a much lower percentage of low achievers in maths. Consistently, in English speaking countries, migrants do not underperform, sometimes they overperform. Why? It is not in the graphs. In Belgium, the Turkish perform 55 points higher than the same students in Finland. Why?
Another factor is ECEC, early childhood education and care. This is a powerful factor leading to improvement especially for disadvantaged pupils. Participating in ECEC is not sufficient, quality is crucial. The EU is developing quality framework.
We know the challenges: more than 20 % of 15 years olds lack basic skills, this affects economic growth and social stability. It is crucial to see education as an investment.
The EU has put in place a thematic working group on ECEC and on maths and science education. (peer learning best practices, research, ..) This latest group (report published) concluded which policies are needed to tackle low achievement. Some of the most important recommendations:
 It is important to identify students who need help, to provide help timely and to provide integrated support (within the school hours!)
 Support has to be given to students and to teachers
 Include science in the definition of basic skills
 Use science literacy to combat technophobia
 Work on science appreciation
 Increase parental involvement
 Connect schools with the local community
 Emphasize equity and cooperation, not choice and competition.

4 Learning outcomes, school quality and equity: what is different about the Vietnamese system?
Caine Rollestone, university of Oxford
Vietnam participated for the first time; it surprises that the overall results are higher than the results of the USA, the UK, and are comparable with BE and Germany, despite of the fact that the average income is very low (similar to India).
PISA shows a high level of parental expectations; high attendance at additional tuition; high amounts of time spent on homework; very low levels of truancy and lateness; low levels of school autonomy, high levels of external accountability; high levels of indicators of quality assurance and of teacher monitoring.
Presentation of the ‘Young lives’ study, an international comparative longitudinal survey of children, households and communitees every three years since 2002 in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.
In all four countries: no schooling level at age 5.
At age 8, even the poorest children in Vietnam are performing better than the richest children in the other countries.
At age 15, the gap between Vietnam and the other three is bigger. Vietnam is outperforming even Peru (income much higher). Best results for India (where the most advantaged still don’t do much better than de most disadvantaged in Vietnam)
In Vietnam children make more rapid progress at any stage, regardless the starting point.
Explanations are difficult, but we can look at some key aspects with explanatory power.
First: the curriculum. The basic math skills to be taught are not drastically different; what is different is whether they learn it or not. How come? One explanation could be that teachers are very much aware of the level of their pupils and about the next steps to take.
Equity: test scores vary less in Vietnam. The relationship between test scores and home situation is less important in Vietnam. Childrens home backgrounds explain more of the variance in attainment in India and Peru than in Vietnam. I
Schools explain more of the variance in attainment in India and Peru compared with Vietnam, which means that Vietnam has a more equitable system. School factors and home background factors matter less in Vietnam.
Some schools are more effective than others in Vietnam, but the key finding is that those differences are not strongly linked to the home background of the pupils who attend the schools.
Within the same school, disadvantaged pupils make less progress in Peru, but not in Vietnam. In Vietnam there is even some evidence that the less advantaged, because the attention is given to bringing up the floor. This is probably linked to the socialist system, the Confucian heritage.
What is different about the Vietnamese system?
An equity oriented centralized public school system
High performance for the majority linked to equity orientation (vs elitist British system): focus on fundamental level for the majority, for everybody. Only six basic subjects, very focused (at the expense of arts, foreign language,.. = criticism).
Commitment to mastery by all pupils, emphasis on effort/work not on ability; teacher knowledge is similar between more and less advantaged area.
Absenteism is absolutely low (pupils and teachers).
 Vietnam: by age 15 a lot of pupils have left education; so the PISA result are an overestimation.
 Vietnamese perform poorly on problem solving.