[Note - added 14/12/2012] - here, by courtesy of Diane Ravitch, are Finn Pasi Sahlberg's similarly veined comments on TIMSS and PIRLS.]
Yong Zhao is a very interesting US-based educational researcher, whose work I first covered covered almost exactly six years ago.
His Numbers Can Lie: Numbers Can Lie: What TIMSS and PISA Truly Tell Us, if Anything? strikes me as an excellent, thought-provoking counter to standard reactions to the slew of comparative data that has just been published, such as this one from English Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, or this report from the BBC. After an interesting discussion about why it might be that learners in some of the countries that score well in maths at the same time have very low confidence in maths, and place a very low value on maths, Zhao asks, if America has been doing so badly in comparison to many other nations, why is it not falling apart economically? Here is an excerpt:
“Our future depends on the strength of our education system. But that system is crumbling,” reads a full-page ad in the New York Times. Dominating the ad is a graphic that shows “national security”, “jobs,” and the “economy” resting upon a cracking base of education. This ad is part of the “innovative, multitactical” Don’t Forget Ed campaign the College Board sponsored.
It is apparent America’s national security, jobs, and economy has been resting upon a base that has been crumbling and cracking for over half a century, according to the numbers. So one would logically expect the U.S. to have fallen through the cracks and hit rock bottom in national security, jobs, and economy by now. But facts seem to suggest otherwise:
The Soviet Union, America’s archrival in national security during the Cold War, which supposedly had better education than the U.S., disappeared and the U.S. remains the dominant military power in the world.
Japan, which was expected to take over the U.S. because of its superior education in the 1980s, has lost its #2 status in terms of size of economy. Its GDP is about 1/3 of America’s. Its per capita GDP is about $10,000 less than that in the U.S.
The U.S. is the 6th wealthiest country in the world in 2011 in terms of per capita GDP. It is still the largest economy in the world.
The U.S. ranked 5th out of 142 countries in Global Competitiveness in 2012 and 4th in 2011.
The U.S. ranked 2nd out 82 countries in Global Creativity, behind only Sweden in 2011. The U.S. ranked 1st in the number of patents filled or granted by major international patent offices in 2008, with 14,399 filings, compared to 473 filings from China, which supposedly has a superior education.
Obviously America’s poor education told by the numbers has not ruined its national security and economy. These numbers have failed to tell the story of the future."
Zhao differentiates between an employee-oriented education and an entrepreneur-oriented education, and argues that TIMSS and PISA are measuring countries' success in the former not the latter, that is "the extent to which an education system effectively transmits prescribed content", and that "in this regard the US has been a failure for a very long time". Zhao asserts that "the successful transmission of prescribed content contributes little to economies that require creative and entrepreneurial individual talents and in fact can damage the creative and entrepreneurial spirit" and that "high test scores of a nation can come at the cost of entrepreneurial and creative capacity".
I think he has a point.