Sunday, 12 May 2019

Let's not take education international league tables lying down

I'm guessing that it'll soon be time for international education tables  to be published. These league tables rank countries according to the scores of some school students sitting exams in the 'main'  subjects. These are taken up by politicians as evidence that the education service is doing badly, better, worse, really well etc etc. and is used for election purposes as a judgement on how well (or badly) a political party is doing.

I'm going to suggest that it's dangerous to get mixed up with this, even when the data appears to support something that we believe.  As others have pointed out, there are a lot of problems with these international tables, particularly in the matter of how the exam candidates in the different countries are selected, how significant, relevant, reliable or valid the tests themselves are, and how relevant or significant 'place' is in a league table because it can mean that there is a huge difference between 'places' or a tiny one - as with football league tables. 

However, there is yet another problem: these tests end up being statements on a country's education system and yet they omit key questions on this matter of how a country's education system fits a country. A country's education system is to a great degree a product of what those in power in a given country want it to be. Those in power want the education system to produce a set of finished students (school graduates, if you like) in a shape that suits their vision of society. We are entitled to ask several questions about this: is this vision of society worthwhile, valid, fair, just, equitable? If it is, fine - we can ask whether the education system really does match these high standards? If the society fails in key areas of fairness, justice, equitability, we can ask if the education system sustains this lack of fairness, lack of justice and inequitability or whether it challenges it? In other words, we reframe a view of education as have 'values'. Not in an abstract sense, but judged according to some external minimal values around e.g. democracy, freedom, freedom of expression, equitable material levels of existence. We could be more precise and talk about rights to do with the availability of cheap or free health care for all, an equitable taxation system, free or cheap child care and care of the aged, a fair benefits system for the disabled and so on. 

So, then we could ask a whole set of different questions about the worth or value or use of an educational system in relation to something other than itself.  

None of this is 'revolutionary' - some might say it should be. It's totally within the paradigm of a kind of UN view of what countries and the world might be like. 

I've summarised it like this:

Imagine if there were criteria other than PISA exams by which to judge internationally an education system! How about eg best able to support and extend democracy? Best able to hold government to account? Best able to develop a critical public discourse? Best able to stimulate and sustain a strong arts-in-society scene? Best able to sustain nationwide fitness? Best able to deal with climate change, urban and rural planning? Free and cheap transport, health, social services? All requires ‘education’!

At the moment we are channelled into accepting that a country’s ‘education’ is judged on exams in a few subjects and not on what society asks education to do for that society. What’s a ‘good’ education if it eg supports a tyranny?

In a purely theoretical sense, couldn’t you have Nazi Germany coming out of the present international education league tables, top?