The learning curve

| April 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

DIPLOMAT_4-11-2017_0043A good education system is at the core of a country’s success. We list the leaders in science, math and reading, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Every year since 2000, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has tested school children’s aptitudes around the world and compressed the results into a ranking, or score. In certain circles, the much-anticipated release of these rankings generates a wide range of emotions among education experts, reactions The Economist likened to the quadrennial World Cup of soccer.
The Programme for International Student Assessment — known globally by its acronym PISA — is the tool with which the OECD measures academic achievements of OECD and non-OECD countries by testing 15-year-old students in three categories: science, mathematics and reading. PISA testing takes place every three years. Each round focuses on one of three categories, without neglecting the others. In 2015, for example, PISA focused on science, and 540,000 students from 72 countries participated.
Education policy-makers and experts from around the world pay attention to PISA and its competitor, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). These scores are, for better or worse, deeply influential. Countries with strong PISA scores are likely to flaunt them. Those with mediocre or low scores are likely to fret over them. Germany, for example, experienced nothing less than a PISA shock when its 2000 scores showed its fragmented education system was lacklustre compared to its OECD competitors. Germany, in turn, responded by revising its education policies. Today, it finds itself near the Top 10.
PISA, in other words, can point out deficiencies that policy-makers can then remedy — or so supporters say. For critics, the German example actually highlights precisely what is wrong with PISA. According to this critical perspective, PISA focuses on the narrow perspective that education serves the sole purpose of training youth for the workforce. Critics of PISA also contend that its narrow quantitative methodology has fuelled an obsession with standardized testing that threatens to reduce the entire educational experience to a deadening cycle of test taking and test preparation at the expense of less measurable or even immeasurable educational objectives, such as citizenship.
The list of PISA detractors is long and illustrious. The most public expression of their opposition came in May 2014 when the Guardian published a letter of opposition signed by more than 100 education scholars from around the world.
Thousands of other scholars have since joined them in decrying the “PISA regime” that stresses out students and teachers while violating “widely accepted principles of good educational and democratic practices.” As the letter noted, no “reform of any consequence should be based on a single narrow measure of equality” and “no reform of any consequences should ignore the important role of non-educational factors among which a nation’s socio-economic quality should be paramount.” These concerns are not without merit and should not be ignored. This said, PISA scores enjoy some measure of legitimacy and this list recognizes the countries whose participating 15-year-olds secured the highest science scores, in line with PISA’s focus on scientific literacy.
What does this list show? Three things stand out. First, Asian countries dominate. Second, most of the countries on this list show some commitment to ensuring socio-economic equality. Third, education systems are deeply embedded in the social fabric and history of any country. This, of course, means countries cannot simply copy from each other, but must instead develop their own policies.


Singapore scored 63 points above the global average, making its students about two years ahead of their American peers. (Photo: © Stanislav Komogorov |

Singapore scored 63 points above the global average, making its students about two years ahead of their American peers. (Photo: © Stanislav Komogorov |

1. Singapore: 556
(No. 1 in math, No. 1 in reading)
To appreciate the scientific literacy of students in Singapore, consider the following: The OECD average score is 490. Scoring 30 points above that average represents an additional year of education. By this measure, students in Singapore are approximately two years ahead of their American peers, who scored 496. And it is not just in science. Singapore students also dominate math and reading.
What accounts for Singapore’s success? Several points stand out. First, Singapore underscores the theory that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and educational leaders, as the OECD said in 2012. This means, among other things, that superior school systems have more stringent selection mechanisms for future teachers than inferior school systems. As McKinsey & Co. wrote in a 2007 report, superior systems recognize a “bad selection decision can result in up to 40 years of bad teaching.” Accordingly, Singapore has developed a singular statewide selection process for all applicants to the National Institute of Education (NIE), an autonomous institute at Nanyang Technological University, the only school that trains future teachers. This selection process consists of several stages that stress the following criteria, according to McKinsey & Co.: academic achievement, communication and motivation for teaching.
Singapore limits recruitment of future teachers to the top one third of each graduating cohort. A two-stage selection process follows. Candidates are first shortlisted according to university admission standards. Those who pass this screening then undergo interviews to determine whether they possess the necessary aptitude, attitude and personality to be effective teachers. Candidates must then complete a training stint that further assesses their suitability prior to their initial training. Those who fail to complete it must either withdraw or extend their stint for further assessment.
Sing Kong Lee, vice-president of Nanyang Technological University, told the BBC that this training system ensures quality control and creates a consistent approach. Singapore also expects teachers to continue their professional development throughout their career. As the OECD says, teachers are the “pillars” of Singapore’s education system. But if Singapore asks a lot of its teachers, it also rewards teaching with corresponding prestige and pay. According to a 2014 paper by Lim Kam Ming of the NIE, Singapore’s ministry of education regularly reviews the salaries for teachers to ensure that their remuneration remains competitive with other professional salaries. The median starting gross salary for teachers is 41,976 Singapore dollars, a figure comparable to the median starting gross salary for aerospace engineers (42,000) and accountants (40,200).


Japanese teachers cover fewer topics, but in more depth than teachers in countries with lower scores than Japan. (Photo: © Deus0416 |

Japanese teachers cover fewer topics, but in more depth than teachers in countries with lower scores than Japan. (Photo: © Deus0416 |

2. Japan: 538
(No. 2 in science, No. 5 in math)
Not all that glitters is gold. This aphorism might well apply to Japan’s education system. In 2016, Japan confirmed its perennial place near the top of the PISA rankings, finishing second in science and fifth in math among 72 countries or regions. The Japan Times says this ranking likely reflects the method of delivering math education.
Japanese teachers cover fewer topics, but in more depth than teachers in countries with lower scores. Teachers also rely on jugyokenkyu, a term that describes a process during which teachers first plan their lessons. They then deliver them to audiences composed of students and other teachers, while at least one university observer assesses the performances of the teachers, who then receive feedback. But if Japanese teachers receive room to reflect on their own performance, their students face immense pressure to perform. Students and their parents expend much energy and expense to meet the high academic standards that Japanese society sets.
Starting as early as elementary school, students start to attend Juku private schools outside of regular school time to prepare themselves for the entrance examinations into the country’s top public universities. Attending the latter is considered by many as a stepping stone into the leading segment of Japanese society. To this end, parents pay tidy sums each month to give their progeny an added advantage against the competition.
In fact, unceasing competition defines the educational experience of Japanese students from an early age, a condition that has caused personal and public harm.
The intensity of the Japanese school system robs students of the social freedoms their western peers take for granted. Laments about the lack of opportunities for students to release their pent-up frustrations through sports or other channels are growing and the conformist culture of Japanese schools encourages bullying.
Worse, parents regularly contribute to these conditions. Disputes between parents and their children over school frequently contribute to depression and suicides among school-aged children. According to research published by the Wilson Quarterly in 2015, one in 12 Japanese elementary school-aged children and one in four junior high school students suffers from clinical depression. According to this same research, the opening day of school (usually Sept. 1) is also the day when Japanese children are most likely to kill themselves. Sometimes it is parents themselves who will wield the weapon. In August 2016, a 48-year-old Japanese man killed his 12-year-old son with a kitchen knife after the boy failed to study for an entrance exam into a leading private school.


Estonia may be small, with just 1.3 million inhabitants, but it is mighty when it comes to its educational rigour. (Photo: © Peter Muzslay |

Estonia may be small, with just 1.3 million inhabitants, but it is mighty when it comes to its educational rigour. (Photo: © Peter Muzslay |

3. Estonia: 534
(No. 3 in science, No. 6 in reading)
Almost three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, most of the former Soviet Bloc countries still lag behind the economic and social standards of western Europe. In fact, by some political measures, some parts of the region (Hungary, Poland) have regressed and Russia has emerged as an authoritarian inspiration around the world.
So the region as a whole is not exactly a source of best practices in education. Exceptions, however, include the three Baltic states, of which the smallest, Estonia, with a population of about 1.3 million, has emerged as a global leader.
Estonia’s performance appears especially impressive in light of its ethnic diversity (almost 25 per cent of its population is Russian) and low per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $28,140 US compared to the OECD average of
$39,333 US.
Estonia’s current PISA scores (3rd in science, 6th in reading, 9th in math) continue their upward trend from 2012 (6th in science, 11th in reading and math) and confirm the opinion of many experts about the importance of equality and consistency in educational policy-making.
Estonian schools try to offer all students, regardless of their ethnic or economic background, the same educational experience. For example, Estonia dedicated additional resources to Russian-language schools after the first PISA assessments of 2006 showed the average science, reading and mathematics scores of Russian-language students lagged significantly behind those of students in Estonian-language schools. These efforts ensured Russian-language students and their teachers would become more proficient users of Estonian, thereby allowing teachers in Russian-language schools to fully participate in professional development.
Estonia also instituted measures to support weaker students or students with less privileged socio-economic profiles. Students undergo annual interviews that assess their progress and schools must help those with unsatisfactory reviews. Estonia has also offered all of its students free hot lunches, study books and learning material since 2006 to promote equal access to education. All Estonian schools have staff who co-ordinate services for students with special needs and students at risk of dropping out receive personalized services, such as special needs education, speech therapy and various forms of counselling.
While the small population of Estonia raises questions about the transferability of its educational policies, it has helped it surpass more powerful and prosperous nations, at least when it comes to education.


Taiwan retained its strong science and math scores, finishing fourth in both categories. (Photo: © Anna Martynova |

Taiwan retained its strong science and math scores, finishing fourth in both categories. (Photo: © Anna Martynova |

4. Taiwan: 532
(No. 4 math, No. 4 in science)
Let us first consider the bad news. Taiwanese students recorded lower scores for their reading abilities than during their last assessment, dropping from 7th to finish 23rd. Notably, this drop marks a reversal, something experts have blamed on changes to the computer-administered test that had doubled the number of questions and their nature towards more open-ended ones that are generally more challenging. This said, Taiwan retained its strong science and math scores, finishing fourth in both categories. For Taiwan, these numbers are not just a source of pride, but essential. As the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB) suggests, Taiwan depends on a highly educated workforce to compete in the global economy in light of its limited natural resources.
This imperative, coupled with cultural factors that stress the importance of studying, is one of the reasons Taiwanese students belong to the global elite when it comes to mathematics. As the OECD notes, more than one in four Taiwanese students are among the top-performing students in mathematics. Mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore have similar ratios.
High-quality education is essential to Taiwan’s political economy, but its educational system has had a history of inflexibility, a condition partially rooted in the political culture, as a 2016 article in the journal Asia-Pacific Science Education states.
Drawing heavily on Confucian values and ethics such as loyalty, piety, harmony, peace, self-cultivation and respect for the elderly, Taiwan’s political culture was undeniably authoritarian from its founding in 1949 until 1994, when Taiwanese citizens staged a mass demonstration, demanding the removal of the Kuomintang government.
Among the “pioneering endeavours” of Taiwan’s democratic transition have been a series of ongoing educational reforms that sought to decentralize “Taiwan’s highly regulated traditional education system to foster teacher and student autonomy.” As the CIEB notes, Taiwan’s education system stands accused of “putting too much pressure on students and focusing too heavily on exams and memorization rather than creativity.”
Taiwan’s science education has been accordingly more personalized and oriented towards problem-solving.
While this pedagogical transition has encountered resistance from some sections of the educational community, including parents still wedded to Confucian principles, many consider it vital as Taiwan’s economy transitions from one that is labour-intensive towards one based on knowledge and its practical application.


Finnish educational policies have made a point of creating equal opportunities for students from a wide variety of backgrounds. (Photo: © Michal Knitl )

Finnish educational policies have made a point of creating equal opportunities for students from a wide variety of backgrounds. (Photo: © Michal Knitl )

5. Finland: 531
(No. 12 in math, No. 4 in reading)
Where to Invade Next? is a documentary movie in which American filmmaker and liberal provocateur Michael Moore visits places around the world to see what, if anything, the United States could learn from the locals. During his travels, Moore visits Finland to study its education system. While those familiar with Moore’s style of story-telling will likely find his account saccharine, if not simplistic, his interest in the ins and outs of Finnish education speaks to a global interest in this system.
One supposed reason for its exemplary nature lies in its foundation. As Pasi
Sehlberg, director-general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, wrote in the American Educator (2012), “education in Finland was nothing special in international terms.” Finnish students finished close to the average in various assessments at the beginning of the 1990s. Economic changes during this period pushed Finland into financial difficulties, a condition that initiated far-ranging reforms that propelled Finland up the PISA ladder.
Finnish educational policies have historically prioritized creating equal opportunities. Students from a wide variety of  backgrounds, often with very different personal stories, learn together. Second, school curriculums mandate career guidance and counselling, a move designed to minimize the possibility that students end up making the wrong educational choices. Third, the Finnish system eschews standard tests and assessments in favour of personalized learning and support.
Sehlberg, however, warns against unrealistic expectations. Finland’s educational system is part and parcel of its larger societal model favouring high measures of consensus and socio-economic equality. “One lesson from Finland is, therefore, that successful change and good educational performance often require improvements in social, employment and economic sectors,” Sehlberg writes.


Macau matched its previous mathematics scores while exceeding its earlier scores in scientific literacy and reading. (Photo: TINho C.)

Macau matched its previous mathematics scores while exceeding its earlier scores in scientific literacy and reading. (Photo: TINho C.)

6. Macau, China: 529
(No. 3 in math, No. 12 in reading)
Located 50 kilometres west of Hong Kong, this former Portuguese colony is home to 650,000 people who share a space of 28 square kilometres. This combination makes Macau one of the most densely populated spots on the planet. It rejoined the People’s Republic of China in 1999 as a special administrative region under an agreement that promised considerable autonomy under the formula of “one country, two systems.” This arrangement allowed Macau to operate its education system independently of China. Notably, Macau did not develop a unified education system until the late 1980s because its Portuguese colonial government showed little interest in the subject. What existed instead was what Tang Kwok-Chun and Mark Bray, writing in the Journal of Educational Administration, called “an unco-ordinated poly-centered collection of systems” that had arrived from Portugal, the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, “with different rules for each.”
Private and denominational schools flourished and public contributions to education were among the lowest in the world. In 1975, education received 2.2 per cent of total government spending. By 1983, that figure reached 5.3 per cent, still one of the lowest in the world. Change, however, occurred from the outside. As Kwok-Chun and Bray write, the “strongest stimulus to rectify the government’s neglect of education came from the 1987 Sino-Portuguese declaration” leading to the return of Macau to China.
“The government,” they write, “identified education as an important ingredient for stability and transition to the post-colonial era, and the public demanded greater government inputs in order to strengthen local identity.” Policies that unified and standardized the education system on the way towards a compulsory free system followed. This process has not been without difficulties. Private interests have remained powerful players in Macau’s educational system and the place of Portuguese, which “does not have strong international status,” remains contested. This said, Macau’s educational system has been near the top of the PISA rankings for some time.
The most recent ranking marks the fifth time Macau has participated in PISA. This time around, Macau matched its previous mathematics score, while exceeding its scores for scientific literacy and reading.


In Canada, thanks to health care and basic incomes, students are more able to focus on academic performance and are less likely to leave school early in pursuit of full-time work. (Photo: © Freds |

In Canada, thanks to health care and basic incomes, students are more able to focus on academic performance and are less likely to leave school early in pursuit of full-time work. (Photo: © Freds |

7. Canada: 528
(No. 3 in reading, No. 10 in math)
Our list so far has featured countries that tend to be small, if not minuscule in terms of population, size or both. Canada, with its continental land mass and low population density, breaks this pattern. It also breaks another pattern. It is the first and only federal state on this list. Virtually every federation assigns jurisdictional control over education to the provinces, notwithstanding some exceptions. So Canada lacks the formal constitutional means to readily centralize and control education policy on a national level, as is the case with the other entries on this list.
The advantages of a more national approach are apparent. It ensures uniformity and responsiveness while easing implementation, whereas the opposite encourages particularism and provincialism. But if some educational policy-makers question the effects of federalism, it has not prevented Canada from joining the ranks of global educational powerhouses. This fact has not gone unnoticed in the United States, where the role of the federal government in education remains controversial in light of the country’s consistently mediocre, if not sub-par, performance.
On the opposite side of this debate, a long-standing proposal to federalize education policy in Germany continues to encounter opposition from the 16 Länder (federal states).
A closer look, though, reveals that the Canadian experience remains unique. While the education system differs from province to province in reflecting the social, religious and linguistic diversity of Canada, both provincial and federal spheres co-operate in a number of areas, especially social transfers, whereby the federal government provides financial support to the provinces through four major channels: the Canada Health Transfer (CHT), the Canada Social Transfer (CST), Equalization and Territorial Formula Financing.
The first duo consists of conditional transfers that help pay for specific services (health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services, early childhood development and child-care.) The second amounts to unconditional grants to poorer provinces so they can provide residents with services that are reasonably comparable to those elsewhere and taxes that are also reasonably comparable. This fiscal federalism ensures relatively similar standards of living across the country and, more important, provides a social safety net for parents and their children.
As the CIEB notes in its assessment of the Canadian system, “[with] concerns about health care and basic income removed, parents and students are more able to focus on academic performance and students are less likely to leave school at an early age to pursue full-time work.” The latest PISA report praised this aspect of the Canadian education system by noting that Canada belongs to a handful of countries that balance high educational performances with high equity in educational opportunities.
That is not to say that these spending programs are not problematic. They are a constant source of political friction between the federal government and the provinces and among the provinces. It should also be noted that the performance of Canadian students varies by region. While B.C., Alberta and Ontario generally lead the pack, the Atlantic provinces often bring up the rear.

Vietnam's basic literacy and numeracy skills have helped Vietnamese workers transition from low-productivity agricultural jobs to non-farm jobs. (Photo: © Simon Hack |

Vietnam’s basic literacy and numeracy skills have helped Vietnamese workers transition from low-productivity agricultural jobs to non-farm jobs. (Photo: © Simon Hack |

8. Vietnam: 525
(No. 8 in science, No. 22 in math)
When this Asian country first participated in PISA in 2012, the results were shocking — as in shockingly good. Its 15-year-old students finished 19th in reading, 17th in mathematics and 8th in science, as Vietnam finished above the OECD average. This placing meant it outpaced powerful, prosperous G7 countries such as the U.S. and Britain. While the most recent results showed some slippage, they confirmed that the Vietnamese continue to outperform their western peers on several scores.
They finished 8th in science, 22nd in mathematics and 23rd in reading.  Vietnam’s performance puzzles experts because it runs counter to traditional theories. While the economy of Vietnam is becoming more productive and modern, it remains relatively poor. Education theory consistently links educational achievement with prosperity. Schooling is far from universal, while corruption is rampant. Rote learning and memorization were the dominant pedagogical techniques. These concerns have resonated throughout the literature.
Consider a 2014 World Bank report. On one hand, it notes that basic literacy and numeracy skills have “helped Vietnamese workers move from low-productivity agriculture into higher-productivity non-farm jobs. This has promoted rapid economic growth and poverty reduction.”
Today, it continues, “Vietnamese workers perform better in reading than workers in other countries, including wealthier ones.” There is still room for improvement, however. “Looking ahead, continued strong economic growth will require increased labour productivity and a workforce with the skills to match the job market.” Recommendations include measures that promote the development of technical and cognitive skills, such as critical thinking.
Yet for all of these critiques, Vietnam’s PISA ranking offers several important lessons. First, Vietnamese society values teaching and teachers. Second, school curriculums focus on core concepts. In short, Vietnamese students study fewer things in more depth than their western peers. Third, Vietnamese parents appear much more involved than elsewhere. While this phenomenon also bears dangers, it speaks to the value that Asian societies attach to advancement through education. Fourth, and perhaps most remarkably, Vietnamese students are resilient.
As the OECD notes, the poorest students in Vietnam (along with students from Macau) “outperform the most advantaged students in about 20 other PISA-participating countries and economies.” In short, Vietnamese students are not going to let difficult conditions get in the way on their road towards success. Their aspirations are the aspirations of Vietnam.


Hong Kong's education system has become more flexible since the territory rejoined China in 1997. (Photo: © Waihs |

Hong Kong’s education system has become more flexible since the territory rejoined China in 1997. (Photo: © Waihs |

9. Hong Kong: 523 (China)
(No. 2 in math, No. 2 in reading)
Call it a case of complaining on a high level. The fact that Hong Kong students finished 9th in PISA science scores prompted not only headlines (“Hong Kong slips to new low in international ranking for student performance in science” — South China Morning Post) but also some soul searching among members of the educational community in this special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. “I do not think this means Hong Kong students have a low ability in science,” Esther Ho Sui-chu, director of the Centre for International Student Assessment in Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post. “We have always been in the world’s top 10 in all three assessed aspects.”
This point certainly speaks to the quality of the Hong Kong education system. It — like Macau’s — reflects the colonial history of Hong Kong.
This obvious point of similarity, however, obscures significant differences between the former Portuguese (Macau) and the former British (Hong Kong) colonies. Whereas private interests initially dominated the education system of Macau, the state has always dominated the education system of Hong Kong.
Few Hong Kong schools qualify as genuine public schools operated and funded by the state, but the government controls virtually all aspects of education, such as curriculum guidelines, classroom content and teacher education.
As Tang Kwok-Chun and Mark Bray write, this dominance reflects a historical choice by colonial administrators to use the education system as a shield against whichever political ideology was prevailing on the Chinese mainland, be it the Nationalists during the first half of the 20th Century, or the Communists after the Second World War.
While Hong Kong’s education system has become more flexible since the territory rejoined China in 1997, it has remained committed to ensuring equal access to educational opportunities.

Previously, only Shanghai participated in PISA but this year, Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong also took the tests and in the process, lowered China's score. (Photo: © Jianbinglee |

Previously, only Shanghai participated in PISA but this year, Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong also took the tests and in the process, lowered China’s score. (Photo: © Jianbinglee |

10. People’s Republic of China: 518 (Four Regions)
(No. 6 in math, No. 27 in reading)
Some methodological clarity first: Not all of China participated in PISA. In fact, up until 2015, all Chinese students who took the PISA exam had come from one area: Shanghai.
Both city and province, Shanghai is China’s most populous urban area and economic centre. Home to about 25 million people, Shanghai contributes to about one eighth of the economy. Given its wealth, it is therefore not surprising that the local education system would produce rather high PISA scores across all categories, including science. In fact, during the two previous PISA tests, Shanghai had topped all three categories.
This time around though, three other provinces — Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong — joined Shanghai in submitting to the PISA examinations. In doing so, they depressed the Chinese performance. This development surprised experts inside and outside of China, who had previously predicted that the addition of three new provinces would not significantly damage China’s reputation as an educational leader. And it might not have. Chinese society has historically placed a high value on education and major cities (such as Shanghai) are important education hubs. This said, it is important to note that Chinese education stands accused of being manipulative and harmful.
Yong Zhao, a professor in the department of educational methodology, policy and leadership at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, has presented evidence that the Chinese government rigged previous PISA results by excluding weaker students and giving schools plenty of notice to prepare.
Some reports speak of teachers drilling students well into the night. Zhao has also argued in his book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, that the Chinese system fosters cultural and political habits that are authoritarian in nature. As he told The New York Times in a 2014 interview, the Chinese system is “centrally dictated, uniformly programmed and constantly monitored by standardized tests.” Accordingly, it is unlikely to “value individual talents, respect students’ interests and passion, cultivate creativity or entrepreneurial thinking, or foster the development of non-cognitive capacities.”
Yet it is those very things — creativity, passion and social-emotional well-being — that will matter in the economy of the future, he argues. In short, Zhao accuses the Chinese education system of draining the life out of students, with consequences for Chinese society. To underscore this point, Zhao asks a simple rhetorical question: If the Chinese education system is so superior, why do so many of the country’s elite send their children to college abroad?


Top 10 educational laggards

This list highlights, if ever so briefly, the respective PISA science scores of notable countries. They include the remaining members of the G7 outside of the Top 10, Australia (a prominent, prosperous member of the English-speaking world), Russia, Israel, as well as emerging powers such as Indonesia and Brazil. No PISA scores are available for India. This list is admittedly arbitrary, but likely more interesting, insofar that it shows that some of the world’s powerful nations are not all what they are cracked up to be.

14. Australia: 510
The 2015 PISA results prompted Australian Education Minister Simon Birmingham to point out that the country still remained ahead of the OECD average. But if this was the good news, he also acknowledged Australia’s results “continued to paint a worrying trend” as scores across all three categories have fallen again.

15. United Kingdom: 509
If one were to rank the PISA scores of the seven most industrialized countries (G7), the United Kingdom would be the best of the rest outside Japan (2nd) and Canada (7th). But as it prepares for a more global orientation following Brexit, educational leaders such as Brett Wigdortz, CEO and founder of the educational advocacy group Teach First, are adamant that the UK educational system still leaves much room for improvement, especially in the training and recruitment of science, technology, engineering and math teachers. “This issue,” wrote Wigdortz in The Telegraph, “is only going to become more pressing as we increasingly need a highly skilled workforce to compete in a post-Brexit world.”

15. Germany: 509
As mentioned, Germany’s PISA results triggered comprehensive educational reforms in the country of self-professed poets and thinkers. But questions remain. They include, among others, the question of whether Germany’s decentralized educational system will be able to accommodate the recent influx of asylum seekers. The answer to that question might go a long way towards determining whether Europe’s most powerful economy will retain another title: Weltexportmeister (export world championship) as measured by its trade surplus.

25. United States: 496
Third from the bottom among the G7 countries, the United States finds itself in the middle of an ideological debate over the role of the federal government in education. Common Core — an initiative designed to create common standards across the entire country — confronts its pending demise just a few years after its introduction. PISA administrators and Democrats generally praise it, but the Republicans, who control Washington, D.C., these days, despise it.

27. France: 495
Social inequality, be it the absence or presence thereof, appears in the literature as one, if not the, defining factor in educational outcomes. It is therefore painfully ironic that the state founded on the principle of égalité has the most inequitable educational system. In other words, social background, not talent, determines whether French students succeed or not.

According to PISA, Russian education has a mediocre record. (Photo: © Annatamila |

According to PISA, Russian education has a mediocre record. (Photo: © Annatamila |

32. Russia: 487
What to make of Russian education? That is the question looming in light of conflicting data. According to PISA’s competitor, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Russian students easily crack the Top 10 when it comes to math and science. According to PISA, the country has a mediocre record. Obviously, different testing methodologies are liable to produce different results. Yet the question remains. Which of these is “alternative fact?”

34. Italy: 481
The worst PISA performer of the G7 countries, Italy finds itself in the middle of a political and economic malaise that has lasted for years, if not decades. While the causes and symptoms of this crisis are many, it is hard not to find a relationship between the country’s high levels of youth unemployment and its struggling education system, especially in the south.

40. Israel: 467
Overall, Israel is trending up when it comes to its PISA science score. But the country as a whole continues to lag behind the OECD average and the gaps between students of different sociological groups (Hebrew-speakers versus Arab-speakers; students from prosperous backgrounds versus students from poor backgrounds) were significant. According to The Jerusalem Post, “across all areas tested, Israel showed results with the largest range of grades in the world.”

65. Indonesia: 403
With a population of almost 250 million, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country on the planet. Yet, for all of its economic gains, the quality of the country’s education system has yet to catch up with its economic progress. As the The Jakarta Post reports, the 2015 PISA scores show “Indonesia is still struggling.” In fact, Indonesian students overall “do not seem to value or see opportunities in becoming a scientist.”

66. Brazil: 401
The most populous country of Latin America is perhaps indicative of the problems that confront education on that continent. Brazil performs substantially below the average across all categories, including science. Social inequality is a defining feature of the education system and the society at large.




Wolfgang Depner has taught political theory and international politics at the University of British Columbia, Okana- gan campus  He now lives in Victoria.

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Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan and the co-editor of Readings in Political Idealogies since the Rise of Modern Science, published by Oxford University Press.

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