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PISA 2009 and Education in a competitive world

December 10th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I remember an interview on Charlie Rose of Bill Gates about globalization few years ago. This was around the time when Thomas Friedman wrote his famous book, “The World is Flat.” Gates made the comment that in a flat world, everyone will be competing for the right to work. There are no such jobs reserved for anyone. Certainly there are certain jobs reserved for within each national borders. For example, the President. But, is there doubt competing for that is ultra competitive?

It comes as of no surprise that American business leaders are pushing the U.S. government to make education a top priority. Corporate America prefers to hire highly skilled and educated Americans rather than foreigners for obvious reasons; one of which is to avoid political heat at home for being ‘unpatriotic.’ Here is Intel CEO, Paul Otellini making a case for investing in education: “The Long Look Ahead: The Economic Crisis and the Importance of Investing“, addressed to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., on Feb. 10, 2009. He argues how education is directly related to the health of an innovative economy.

With the emergence of new economic powers like China and India, America no longer dominates the global economic stage. Innovation no longer belongs to a single country or region. It is more evenly distributed and, in fact, accrues to countries in proportion to the quality and rigor of their educational systems.

Otellini’s message is equally applicable for the world over – not just for the United States government alone.

Recently, this topic made its rounds in the U.S. media because PISA had just released its 2009 report – ranking the effectiveness of education among the top industrialized nations around the world. (See “PISA 2009 Results.”)

What has caught the media’s attention is “China’s” surprise topping of this ranking. Here, the NYT reports, “Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators.” Though I won’t call the NYT article ‘propaganda’, since the content of the article seems balanced, but readers must absolutely bear in mind that the “China” results are only from a highly advanced city. Whereas the U.S. results are country-wide.

To be fair to the NYT article, it does say “Shanghai” in the headline, not “China.”

If PISA had taken a report from just a certain town in Massachusetts or from one of the top cities across America, I guarantee you the U.S. ranking would be in the first place or near the first place.

Is the U.S. media turning this PISA 2009 report into a “China threat” and using it as an excuse to try to improve the education system in the United States? Keep this question in mind as you read articles related to this report.

Some of you will find this NYT quote ridiculous, but I am certain there are more than a handful of Americans taking it seriously:

“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, referring to the groundbreaking Soviet satellite launching. Mr. Finn, who has visited schools all across China, said, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

Is “China threat” a good way to motivate America into a better education system? After all, Sputnik certainly prompted the creation of NASA and JPL, and diversion of a lot of funding into math and science education in America. The Internet and many of America’s innovations today were rooted in that.

The idea of America having to build up external threats as catalyst for solving her internal problems just doesn’t sound very settling.

In September 2009, I had a chance to speak with Robert Compton. He had already made two documentary films at that time, “Two Million Minutes” and “Win in China.” The first film was comparing high schools between America, India, and China. His conclusion was that both India and China were better educating their students than America. In the second film, he tried to show Americans that China is every bit as entrepreneurial as America is today.

Compton is a very successful business man. He has amassed a fortune building businesses and running successful companies. What is absolutely clear between him, Gates, and Otellini is that they all agree America must improve her education system.

Where is the “China threat” (and “India threat”) in Compton’s films? Well, on one hand, I think it is absolutely critical for Americans to see what the world is like. As the NYT article said at the end, the PISA test tests creativity and the ability to apply what is learned, not just the ability for rote memorization. Compton made those exact points as well. The Indians and the Chinese can absolutely innovate.

In that context, I think Compton’s films definitely help debunk this ignorance in America thinking China (and India) cannot innovate (by the way, a narrative often peddled by the Western media.)

But it is interesting that Compton made these films about China and India, because his ultimate goal is to improve America’s education system so Corporate America can hire locally and be more competitive.

I really don’t want this post to just be about the politics of education. I think better education is a goal for any nation. As I have written about China’s Hope Project just a few posts ago, China still has a huge population so poor where education is not even an option.

One of the key differences between Chinese and American education is the difference in levels of emphasis on extracurricular sports. This is widely agreed on – not just my observation. To me, sports provide a very different type of learning than from a classroom setting. They offer additional opportunities for teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal communications. Those are invaluable skills throughout one’s life.

If PISA expands their tests in the future beyond academics to include those skills I mentioned, I think America would do much better in the rankings. So, I think China’s system can improve on those dimensions; more sports.

There are certainly other aspects to how well young people are educated. Another fellow blogger, berlinf, had interviewed Dr. Edwina Pendarvis on a number of these aspects. Here is one on anti-intellectualism: “Interview with Dr. Edwina Pendarvis (I): Anti-Intellectualism in US Schools.”

Chinese people watching Compton’s films or reading the PISA 2009 report may feel “proud” for what China’s education system has achieved. But, they should definitely not rest on their laurels.

Like America working hard now to try to revamp (or rather, to simply improve) her education system, China could use some Compton’s, Otellini’s, and Gates’ pushing for reforms to further improve hers.

Below is a town-hall style meeting (certainly worth watching) involving many of the key people in the U.S. pushing for education reform in America over at The Innovation Economy:

  1. TonyP4
    December 10th, 2010 at 05:58 | #1

    The big difference between US’s and China’s education systems is motivation.

    Chinese system. If you do not work hard in your school work, you’ll be a nobody.

    US system. If you screw up, the government will bail you out. Look at the entitlements/social welfare for teenage mothers, unemployed, single parent families…

  2. HermitCrab
    December 10th, 2010 at 07:20 | #2

    To give some credit where it is due – the US system is more forgiving for the ‘late-bloomers’ should they ‘come out’ (take advantage in the good way).

  3. TonyP4
    December 10th, 2010 at 08:41 | #3

    Sarah was a candidate for VP and has a good chance to run for the president. She is not even better than a 6th grader. It speaks a lot of the US education.

    However, Americans are innovative with about half of the top 100 colleges in the world. How long will China produce a Bill Gates, founders of Google and Facebook? We need highly skilled citizens for the global economy (that we have), but we also need more geniuses mentioned and give them opportunity to prosper.

  4. Charles Liu
    December 10th, 2010 at 09:51 | #4

    In all honesty Shanghai schools aren’t really representative of China as a whole. For example lack of school funding in rural area, teacher abondoning traditional job assignment arrangements for private sector jobs in the cities.

    Many Chinese parents nowadays are complaining about China’s education system declining. I’ve personally been asked by friends and relatives to find their children boarding schools in US with international program.

  5. SilentChinese
    December 10th, 2010 at 10:36 | #5

    Charles Liu :In all honesty Shanghai schools aren’t really representative of China as a whole. For example lack of school funding in rural area, teacher abondoning traditional job assignment arrangements for private sector jobs in the cities.
    Many Chinese parents nowadays are complaining about China’s education system declining. I’ve personally been asked by friends and relatives to find their children boarding schools in US with international program.

    No body ever said they were. and they were ranked as “Shanghai, China” as oppose to just “China”.

    Come to think of it, the kids from 2nd/3rd tier cities work even harder than those in Shanghai, and if given the same tools would achieve higher results.

    The parents who send their kids aboard is really just want to be “one-up-manship”. keep up with the zhang’s. perception of a foreign education = better education is still strong.

    also coincided with this PISA result news is a new round of education reform launched by China. I bet no one paid any attention to that right?

  6. December 10th, 2010 at 11:34 | #6

    Timothy Jones made a comment at the Hope Project post about some recent coming together of education experts in Renmin University. (At the end of the comment, he provided a link to his full post where he provided links to various topics presented.) My take away is China is actively looking for ideas around the world and fostering exchange of ideas to improve education. When I interviewed Compton, he attested to that as well.

    I think the other unspoken reason for Chinese citizens wanting to send their kids over to the U.S. to study is to learn the cultural norms and immerse in English language learning that is otherwise difficult to obtain in China. These skills are highly sought after working for companies where interaction with Americans and foreigners is frequent.

    Plus, with the shortfall in school funding in the U.S. due to budget deficits, many colleges and universities are in fact recruiting much more heavily for foreign students, because they payfull price.

  7. TonyP4
    December 10th, 2010 at 12:38 | #7

    They should use some Tier II cities like Nanjing. SH kids have too many attractions like piano lessons, MacDonald’s, haha. I’m glad that it is not a city in Tibet.

  8. SilentChinese
    December 13th, 2010 at 06:58 | #8


    in all seriousness the kids from 2-3rd tier provincial cities are hard workers. They may not be great at “Creative” stuff because of the teacher quality and material provided, but on the core subjects they are probablly better than SH/BJ kids.

    Rigourous standardized examination is a mean to level the playing field in china, it always has and I hope it stays that way.

  9. SilentChinese
    December 13th, 2010 at 07:08 | #9


    not an under current, There is a official push to reform education in China right now. coming from MoE. One should really watch the XinWenLianBo some times, they tell you what they will do in plain speak. 🙂

    If I am offending any one here by saying this:

    The perception of a foreign education is not what it used to be. Back then the kids they sent aboard were not kids at all but cream of china’s higher education crop. Many of them even has years of work experience. They know how to work hard and they excelled.

    The kids now a days, especially the young ones the over competitive and/or cash rich parents send to ANZAC+UK+Cananda, many of them are spoiled rotten. and their education is frankly not worth the money. and they can’t stick around and come straight home to china expecting walking into a fortune 500 and get a 7 figure salary straight away.

    I will spare you guys the nicknames etc.

  10. December 22nd, 2010 at 01:02 | #10

    I just came across this exchange hosted by People’s Daily between Chinese netizens and an U.S. official visiting China’s Ministry of Education to collaborate on sharing the two counties experiences:

    (Allow few minutes for the video to stream before it will start playing. It’s a bit over an hour.)


  11. Antioxidants
    December 24th, 2011 at 15:07 | #11

    Sure Shanghai is not representative of China, but the rest of China is not doing too bad either.

    “The recent results from the international standardized PISA tests in math, reading and science will make this an increasingly untenable position. Shanghai got by far the best results out of all the OECD countries (never mind the developing ones). . Now while you might (rightly) argue Shanghai draws much of the elite of the Yangtze river delta, the Financial Times has more: “Citing further, as-yet unpublished OECD research, Mr Schleicher said: “We have actually done Pisa in 12 of the provinces in China. Even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average.””


    On the other hand, India bombed on the the follow up test, so called PISA 2009+ which ten more countries participated including India. That India bombed will sure be quite a surprise to many as is shown in this article.

  12. jxie
    December 26th, 2011 at 15:38 | #12

    Antioxidants, thanks for the link, especially the secondary link of a blog named Sublime Obvision. The blog is one of the most fascinating blogs I have ever read.

    Historically the average Gao Kao scores of Shanghai have only slightly been better than those of academically advanced provinces such as Zhejiang & Jiangsu, which also have been very slightly better than most other provinces east of Sichuan and south of Hebei (including them). Chances are any province that was a part of the late Ming would likely be at the top of the PISA tests.

    Quite frankly, if China is to revive its civilization, and can only reach the peak achievements of the USA, I will be mightily disappointed. In my mind, humanity needs a revived Chinese civilization to carry the baton forward.

  13. Antioxidants
    December 30th, 2011 at 21:08 | #13

    Found another related article on this subject:


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