PISA 2009 results analysis (or how I was almost on national television)

Recently, someone from a current affairs television show emailed me. Basically, it’s the start of the new year, and thus the start of the school year. There was the release of the PISA 2009 results and Shanghai topped the list. I wrote a short article, that Singapore was ranked 5th and stated some of my comments.

That person apparently did some research and found me through that article. She probably searched for “pisa results singapore” and my blog came up on the first page of Google results. Go, do a search on those terms. When you find my blog article (titled “Singapore ranked high in PISA 2009 survey”), click on it. Increase my search rankings. Thanks. *smile*

So apparently, I’m the only (Singapore) blogger (I prefer “web publisher”, but I digress) who gave a whoot’s attention about Singapore ranking 5th, in some test with a name that evokes images of an Italian flat bread with stuffings on top. Thus was I contacted to see if I was willing to appear on their TV show to talk about that. After getting over the excitement and fear of appearing on national TV (it took about half an hour to calm my nerves), I read up on my article to remember what the heck I wrote, and glanced through the PISA results again.

Taking a deep breath, I called her to say yes, I’d like to appear on the show. She asked me some questions.

“Do you know our show?”
“No. I don’t really watch television.” (An alarm bell rang violently somewhere in my brain then. It took a second before I realised that I shouldn’t have said that.)

“Do you think we should emulate Shanghai?”
“No. We should be doing our own thing.”

She sent me the topics to be discussed on the show, so I could prepare my responses. Then I did lots of research. You see, it’s been more than a decade since I had contact with academia, let alone with secondary schools (PISA test results are based on 15 year olds). My dad was worried I’d have nothing to say on the show. I asked my friends about the current Singapore education system. I even asked my cousins (who are in secondary school) to let me look at their maths and science textbooks. I read the PISA 2009 results again, thoroughly this time. I prepared my responses to the proposed discussion topics. I worked late into the night. I felt prepared.

The next day, she called me up. Apparently, the topic was changed due to a piece of news: The Singapore football team was disbanded.

“Uhm, I’m sorry. If we do an educational piece, we’ll call you again.”
“Ok.”

“So. Are you a football fan by any chance?”
“No.”
“Well, I had to ask…”

As my friend put it, “Ahhh, such is TV.”

And that’s how I almost appeared on national television. I was both disappointed and relieved at the same time. Then I thought, since I did all that research, I might as well tell you about it. So here’s my short analysis of the PISA 2009 results. Some information first:

  • PISA 2009 results mean the tests were conducted in 2009. The results were announced on 7 Dec 2010.
  • Students are between 15 years 3 months and 16 years 2 months old
  • The sample size from each country must be at least 5000, unless the country does not physically have that many eligible students.
  • Shanghai and Singapore are partner countries, and not OECD countries. I don’t know the significance, but Singapore was included in an OECD whitelist in 2009. Apparently, it’s something to do with transparency of financial and tax information.

I’m responding generally to the topics I was supposed to discuss.

Opinions and thoughts about Shanghai’s and Singapore’s performance

I’m happy for Shanghai. I’m also happy for us. I mean, we’re 5th! Besides, your greatest competitor is yourself, not other people.

I remember something that happened when I was about 9 years old (I think). I had tuition classes in English and maths (hard to believe, what with my impeccable linguistic skills. I know, right? *smile*). There was this English test, and I scored 76 marks out of 100. Yes, I still remember that score. Not too great, but I scored the highest in the class.

I went home and told my dad about it, bursting with pride at being the best in class. His response was “How come so low?” in Chinese. Talk about deflating your morale. From that incident, I learnt that the toughest benchmark you can set your target on, is yourself. Keep improving yourself. Being better than other people will take care of itself.

How did Shanghai do it? Can Singapore do it too?

I don’t know. But this might shed some light. Instead, I want to highlight something in the PISA summary report.

According to the report, out of the countries Finland, Japan, Turkey, Canada and Portugal and the partner country Singapore (emphasis mine), 39% to 48% disadvantaged students are resilient.

Resilient students come from the bottom quarter of the distribution of socio-economic background in their country and score in the top quarter among students from all countries with similar socio-economic background

Compare that with 76% of Shanghai’s disadvantaged students being resilient.

Our near obsession with tuition and shielding our children from outside stress so they can just focus on studying might be a problem. I heard a story about a father not scolding his daughter for fear of distracting her from her exams the next day. She’s a university student. What’s going to happen to her when she steps out of school? Life doesn’t throw stress at you one at a time.

Competition between Shanghai and Singapore

I don’t even know if we’re competing, at least directly. I don’t know what Shanghai is striving for. But what is Singapore striving for? To be an educational, commercial and research hub in South East Asia? Or to beat Shanghai because they won in a study that only focussed on reading, maths and science?

If we want to beat a country at something, we should know what we would get after winning.

Emulating Shanghai

If we (Singapore) truly want to win, to innovate, to lead, then we should lead. Emulating Shanghai just means we’re following them. We might catch up, but we’ll never truly overtake them.

Hey, our primary maths system is adopted by other countries. Israel took up our maths system (in 2002), and per capita, they are one of the richest in the world. Clearly we’re doing something right.

Merits of the Singapore education system

I’ve not been involved in academia for years, so I can’t comment on that. If anything, we should use more real world examples (which PISA does).

For example, a sample maths question in PISA showed 3 clocks, Greenwich 12 midnight, Berlin 1am, Sydney 10am. Then the student was asked

If it’s 7pm in Sydney, what’s the time in Berlin?

That’s immediately applicable in real life. I haven’t seen maths questions in a long time, so the following is something dredged from my memory.

Suppose John spent $X buying some marbles. Red marbles cost R cents, and blue marbles cost B cents. If John bought twice as many red marbles as blue marbles, how many blue marbles did he buy?

Putting aside the obvious reaction of “Why the heck do I want to answer that?”, there are some problems. If I knew John had twice as many red marbles as blue marbles, that meant I already counted them. How else would I know there were twice as many red marbles?

And if I really want to know how many blue marbles John bought, I would just ask him. Let’s say somehow his answer was posed in riddle form. Instead of being a normal person and just tell me he bought 5 blue marbles, John gave me a mathematical riddle to solve. The number of blue marbles had better be critically important…

I could also just ask the store keeper how many blue marbles John bought from him. I doubt the store keeper would also give me his answer in the form of a riddle. But if he did, this world just became more interesting and more exasperating at the same time.

So the student answering that kind of question had to overcome his “Why the heck do I want to answer that?” response before working on the question.

Last thoughts

From the report,

In countries where 15-year-olds are divided into more tracks based on their abilities, overall performance is not enhanced, and the younger the age at which selection for such tracks first occurs, the greater the differences in student performance, by socio-economic background, by age 15, without improved overall performance.

My understanding on that quote is that specialisation has no enhanced overall performance. There’s also this:

Successful school systems – those that perform above average and show below-average socio-economic inequalities – provide all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, with similar opportunities to learn.

Schools shouldn’t differentiate between rich and poor students.

And finally, as I wrote before:

Skill honing at an early stage assumes that whatever a student is good at has already manifested itself. It’s a reasonable assumption. It’s only dangerous if the skill specialisation is to the exclusion of all else (or even “many” else). It gets worse if the student don’t like his “special” ability, and also has aptitude in another area that he likes. But the student is already shuffled into Box A for the first skill.

Be careful of streaming.