We’re looking at the wrong Nordic Country when it comes to PISA

By December 7, 2019Education

Australia has just done worse than it ever has on the international academic benchmark, PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment).  The usual suspects are telling us to copy Finland, the darling of the early PISA tests.  But with the Fins now in a nosedive like ours, perhaps it would be smarter if we looked to their Nordic neighbor, Sweden.

PISA is conducted every three years by the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).  It compares the performance of 79 countries using standard and consistently applied testing.  It is the international equivalent of NAPLAN, the Australian national standardized test.

The latest round of data has just confirmed that Australia is in serious trouble. According to the test, more than 4 out of every 10 Australian 15-year olds now do not read well enough to meet the minimum national standard.  Even more shockingly 1 in 5 Australian 15 year olds cannot read well enough to actively participate in a modern society.

Our scores in Maths, Science and Reading have been consistently falling since the testing started in 2000.  Today’s Australian 15 year olds are academically equivalent to Australian 14 year olds in 2000 (and todays 12 year olds in Singapore).  In Maths, Australia has dropped from 5th in the world in 2000 to 24th today.

The usual finger pointing started within seconds of the data release this week.  Depending on the commentator, it was either the Federal Government or the State Governments or the teachers or the lack of teachers or the parents or the quality of graduates or the Universities or not using phonics to teach reading or lack of money, or, well, you get the idea.

The proposed solutions are as tired and worn out as the pointy fingers of blame.  One of the first to be wheeled out is that we need to be more like Finland.  When the first PISA test was published in 2000, it showed that Finland was close to the top of the table in most domains.  And when the second and third tests showed them getting even better, Finland became a superstar of education. Finland has been the darling of many education consultants (and professional development salespeople) ever since.  The only trouble is, that PISA tells us their results have been plummeting just as fast as ours since 2006.

Finland does do education differently to many in the OECD, but that is a recent phenomenon.  In the mid-1990s, they copied reforms implemented in Sweden over the preceding decade.  Both countries had been leaders in school education since the 1950s using a model of public education for all.  Both demanded that a student would be guaranteed the same high-quality education delivered to the same high standards wherever they lived.  Schools were strictly and centrally controlled, had state-prescribed curriculums, external school inspections and detailed regulation. Everyone had the best school in country just down the road.

But during the 1980s and early 1990s, a revolution in education practice occurred first in Sweden and then in by the mid-1990s in Finland.  Both embarked upon what could be described as knit-your-own-adventure education. Both countries disbanded their school inspection programs, central control was loosened and local administrators and teachers were empowered on matters of curriculum, teacher training and grade criteria.  Teachers were given enormous autonomy in the classroom.  They could choose whatever teaching methods they liked and were largely free from standardized testing and school inspections.

The changes introduced assessment by objectives.  The curriculum no longer included prescribed content and detailed syllabi.  It simply established goals and expected schools to interpret and implement them as they saw fit.  Sweden also introduced school choice, allowed the entry of for-profit private operators and encouraged competition for taxpayer funded ‘vouchers.’

When Finland blitzed the 2000 PISA test, the commentators attributed that performance to the newly implemented high autonomy design, forgetting perhaps that the 15 year-olds tested in 2000 (and even 2003) had, crucially, had their early education under the old system.

Sweden’s PISA results in 2000 were nowhere near as stellar as Finland (nor Australia), but they weren’t terrible, so no-one worried too much.  When the 2003 results showed a slight decline, alarms started to sound.  Internal national testing was showing that the average 15 year old in 2004 was achieving at the same level as 14 year olds in 1996. Action plans were drawn up, but an education system is a large ship to turn.

In 2009, Sweden’s experienced what they described as a PISA-Shock.  Sweden’s PISA maths result dropped below the OECD average, something Australia has just managed to emulate. In 2012 Sweden’s results plummeted even further, but by then plans to recentralize the Swedish education system were well under way due to a series of reforms implemented as a direct result of the 2009 PISA-Shock.

They decided quality education requires quality control. A new school inspection office and regime of standards enforcement was created in 2008 and a new curriculum which was much more prescriptive about what should be taught, how it should be taught and how it should be graded was introduced in 2011. And the results are beginning to show.  The 2015 results arrested the plummet and dragged Sweden just above the OECD average.  The 2018 results have confirmed it wasn’t an anomaly, with Sweden almost surpassing Finland and scoring significantly better than the flailing Australian Education system.

Sweden is still a long way from perfect.  Its privatized school choice voucher system is strapping a rocket to inequity and this is likely to put a ceiling on what can be achieved. It still hasn’t clawed its way back to where it was in even 2003 but its results are heading in the right direction.

Sweden and Finland both threw out a system of old-school equal education-for-all, centralized control, school inspections and prescribed teaching practices in favour of more experimental, loosey-goosey methods.  Both have suffered significantly as a result.  And while Sweden accelerated its demise by simultaneously introducing school choice that exacerbated inequity, there can be little doubt that flower-power education did neither of them any favours.

We can learn a lot from the Nordic experience, but not what most people think.  It tells us education needs structure, rules, tests and inspections and if you want it to do even better, it needs all of that, without school choice.

Australia needs to have its own PISA-Shock moment.  We are in accelerating decline and we need to act quickly to arrest it.  We have failed a generation of Australian kids.  When one in five Australian kids is not functionally literate, we are in the middle of a full-blown education disaster.  For those children and their families, this is a crippling impairment.  And for the country that depends on every child being an active contributor, it is a rapidly accelerating catastrophe demanding an urgent solution.