PISA, Literacy, Weird Fish

It’s been a busy week, huh. As I write this, Boris Johnson has led the Tories to their strongest victory in thirty years, Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry continues, and, in what I am sure is a complete coincidence with no symbolic resonance, hundreds (nay, thousands) of penis fish have apparated along the shores of California. Let’s talk education.

On December 3, the first three volumes of the PISA report came out (here). PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, and it’s basically the gold standard for a global view on education. If you’ve heard anything about it in New Zealand or Australia, you’ve probably heard the ruckus about our steadily declining scores. I just want to spend a bit of time digging into the report, pulling out some of the different findings, and maybe talking about education in a broader sense.

The basic boring housekeeping stuff, then: I’m a New Zealand citizen working in education and living in Australia, so those two countries are really my focus. Don’t click away if you’re elsewhere in the world, though – there’s some broader education thinking that we’re doing here, and it probably applies to you. Also, my other main point of focus will be literacy. I’m an English graduate by trade, so it’s the thing that most immediately stands out to me. People often hear literacy and think it basically just means reading – pick the book up, read the words, done. More broadly, though, literacy is about making meaning out of the stuff you read. According to the PISA report, fewer than one in ten students globally (fucking globally!) was able to distinguish between fact and opinion in the reading section of this test. This is how the report contextualises that finding:

“In the past, students could find clear and singular answers to their questions in carefully curated and government-approved textbooks, and they could trust those answers to be true. Today, they will find hundreds of thousands of answers to their questions online, and it is up to them to figure out what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. Reading is no longer mainly about extracting information; it is about constructing knowledge, thinking critically, and making well-founded judgements.” (p4)

The report also offers a second angle on reading in the digital age. Most of the easy stuff, it suggests, is stuff that can be automated. It’s increasingly unnecessary for the job market – meaning that the stuff that’s still necessary is also more difficult. It’s shit that we haven’t figured out how to automate. Reading is thus increasingly about negotiation. It’s about making judgements, about weighing and discerning and distinguishing. 80% of students now read online news (p32). What news are they reading? Where are they sourcing it from? Are they able to evaluate its reliability, its neutrality? We know from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that people are taking our online data and using it to send us personalised political ads. We also know that sometimes ads don’t look like ads. Sometimes it’s the Russians creating fake accounts to spread misinformation. And, I mean, not to draw any overarching conclusions or anything, but I can think of a couple of blond-headed men in positions of power whose names often come up in connection to these misinformation campaigns. Literacy is important. It’s getting harder. And we’re getting worse at it. And there are consequences. Thousands of penis fish – no, sorry.

I’ve had a couple people, actually, suggest to me that the decreasing rankings of New Zealand and Australia owe to the rapid increase of countries like China. We only look bad by comparison, they suggest. It’s not true. Well, it’s mostly not true. It might be that our place in the rankings has gone down, but that’s not just because of China’s ascension. Our average scores over time have been steadily decreasing, right across the board. Both New Zealand and Australia have been declining on their reading scores (-4 points every three years), their math (-7), and their science (-6 and -7 respectively) (p17). It’s not just that other places are getting better (although they are). We’re also getting worse.

Let’s get a few different stats out there, then. Time for a rapid-fire round.

  • There are increasingly more low achievers for reading in both Australia and New Zealand, although the number of high achievers is relatively stable
  • There are increasingly fewer high achievers for math, although the number of low achievers is relatively stable
  • The pool of high-achievers for science is shrinking, and the pool of low-achievers is also getting bigger, in both countries (all p138).
  • In both countries, low achieving readers are getting worse faster than everybody else (pp278 and 321).

And what’s more, increasingly, the difference between countries is less important than the difference within countries. To quote directly:

“in every country and economy, the performance gap between the highest scoring 5% of students and the lowest-scoring 5% of students in reading is larger than the difference in mean performance between the highest-performing country [China] and the lowest-performing country [the Philippines].” (p56)

In other words, it’s less about your nationality, and more about your wealth. There’s a big gap between our best-performing and worst-performing students. That gap isn’t entirely down to wealth, but the poverty cycle does exist. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People have worse child mortality rates, a lower percentage of kids in early childhood education, lower percentages of school attendance, worse life expectancy, lower rates of passing Y12, lower reading and numeracy ability, and worse employment rates (source here, p10). The Australian government has spent ten years trying to close those gaps, and as of this year, they’ve met two of their seven targets. They’ve halved the gap in Y12 attainment – it’s not gone, just half as bad as it used to be – and they have 95% of Indigenous kids in early childhood education. The other five targets have not been met. They haven’t halved the gap in literacy and numeracy. Haven’t halved the gap in employment. Haven’t halved the gap in child mortality rates. The poverty cycle continues. Again, as the PISA report puts it, poverty isn’t destiny (1 in 10 disadvantaged students still made the top quarter of reading performances (p4)), but it’s significant. The report tells us in the preface about the likely pathways for poorer students:

“While students from well-off families will often find a path to success in life, those from disadvantaged families have generally only one single chance in life, and that is a great teacher and a good school.” (p4)

We owe better education to our communities. We owe it to each other. We owe it to the people who were born into poverty, through no fault of their own, and who only get one chance to break the cycle. Once in a generation. And here’s the other thing. There’s a bunch of fuckheads out there who are getting really smart about finding and lying to a really specific section of the population in order to gain power. Literacy is part of our defence against the fuckheads. It’s a cornerstone of our democracy. And it’s becoming more difficult, and we’re getting worse at it. Read to your kids. Support educators and the education system. Be more critical about the media you absorb, and for fuck’s sake stop voting in people who keep fucking lying to you. Five thousand, nine hundred and fifty two of the Conservative party ads featured claims flagged as not correct or not entirely correct. The penis fish were a metaphor. Step up now, or you’ll cock it up all over again next time.

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