European Education Briefing Memo – September

To:  Members of the Roundtable
From:  James Harvey, Executive Director
Subject: Education in Europe
Date:  June 6, 2012 (Updated, September 3, 2013)

            This memo is designed as background for the delegation of Roundtable members participating in a study mission to Europe, June 17-28. The mission is designed to explore the meaning of assessment results from the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) and examine education and schools in Finland (the Western nation with the highest PISA scores), France and England. (Although Britain is the preferred term for the United Kingdom — made up of England, Scotland, Wales and six counties in the north of Ireland, — schools in Britain are administered by each of these jurisdictions separately. What is true of English schools is not true throughout Britain.) The memorandum consists of four sections:

  • Facts and figures in brief on each of the three nations.
  • A brief outline of the primary and secondary school systems in each of the three nations to be visited.
  • A description of the schools to be visited during the study mission.
  • An overview of PISA results and some questions about PISA’s structure

Study mission participants, and other Roundtable members who receive this briefing memo, should feel free to share it as they wish with district staff, board members, and colleagues in other districts.


Primary and Secondary Education in Europe & the United States





United States

Size: 130,000 sq. m. (combine NY, NJ, New England) 220,000 sq. m. (4/5 size of Texas) 94,000 sq. m. (size of Oregon) 3.79 million square miles
Population 5.4 million 65 million 62.6 million 312 million
Ethnicity Finns, Swedes, Lapps, Roma Illegal to collect data by ethnicity. Primarily Celtic and Latin, with African, Indochinese and Basque minorities. White-92%; Black-2%; Other -6% (Indian, Pakistani, and two or more races) White-72%; Latino-16%; Black – 13%; Asian – 5%; two or more races – 3%; Native Americans 1%.
Capital Helsinki Paris London Washington, DC
Government Constitutional Republic Constitutional Republic Constitutional Monarchy Federal Constitutional Republic
GDP (2011) $255.3 billion $2.77 trillion $2.48 trillion $15.1 trillion
GDP growth (2011 est) 2.9% 1% 0.3% 2.2%
Per Capita GDP $36,236 $35,156 $35,090 $48,387
Head of State President Sauli Niinistö President François Hollande Queen Elizabeth II President Barack Obama
Head of Government Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen,, National Coalition Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Socialist Prime Minister David Cameron, Conservative President Barack Obama, Democrat
Education Official Henna Virkkunen Vincent Peillon Michael Gove (England) Arne Duncan
Organization Centralized goals; decentralized implementation Highly centralized Centralized goals & funding; incentives for autonomy at school-site level. Decentralized funding; states responsible for schools; more attention to national standards
Compulsory Schooling 9 years 10 years 12 years Varies by state 10-12 years
# of Students 1.38 mill (2009) 10.03 mill (2009) 7.14 mill (2011) 49.3 mill (2010)
Children in homes below 50% median income 3.4% (2007) 7.3% (2007) 16.2% (2007 – Britain) 21.7% (2007)
PISA mean (2009) 536 reading (3rd)541 math (3rd)

554 science (2nd)

496 reading (22nd)497 math (21st)

498 science (25th)

494 reading (25th)492 math (28th)

514 science (15th)

500 reading (17th)487 math (30th)

502 science (22nd)

%^top 15-yr-olds in science 1% (tied for 14th) 5% (6th) 8% (3rd) 25% (1st)



Education in Finland



For all of its beauty in the summer, Finland can be brutal during the winter. The Lapland area of Finland is located within the Arctic Circle and long, dark winter days throughout Finland mean that Finns take special pleasure in their summers, with schools closed for three months, most government agencies shuttered or operating at half staff for six to eight weeks, and a sense of national liberation around the June equinox.


The Finnish education system consists of daycare programs (for babies and toddlers) a one-year “pre-school” (or kindergarten for six-year olds); a nine-year compulsory basic comprehensive school (starting at age seven and ending at the age of sixteen); and post-compulsory secondary general academic and vocational education. After a nine-year basic education in a comprehensive school, students at the age of 16 may choose to continue their secondary education in either an academic track (lukio) or a vocational track (ammattikoulu), both of which usually take three years.


The Education Index, published with the UN’s Human Development Index in 2008, based on data from 2006, listed Finland at 0.993, tied for first place with Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. Mean results from PISA also rank Finland at the top of Western nations in achievement, although the same results indicate it produces just 1% of the top 15-year-old science students in the world, a standard by which the United States leads the world.


Early Childhood Education

As part of a “maternity package,” parents of newborns are given three books, one for the mother and father, and a baby book for the infant. Finnish parents have had access to free universal daycare for children age eight months to five years since 1990, and a year of “preschool/kindergarten” at age six, since 1996. “Daycare” includes both full-day childcare centers and municipal playgrounds with adult supervision where parents can accompany the child. Municipalities will also pay mothers to stay home and provide “home daycare” for the first three years. Early childhood education is not mandatory in Finland, but is used by almost everyone.


In Finland high quality daycare and nursery-kindergarten are considered critical for developing the cooperation and communication skills necessary for lifelong learning.


Early childhood education programs emphasize respect for individuality, the development of social and interactive skills, caring for others, and promoting gradually increasing independence. “Care” in this context is synonymous with upbringing and is seen as a cooperative endeavor between parents and society to prepare children physically (hygiene and nutrition) and mentally (communication, social awareness, empathy, and self reflection) before beginning formal learning at age seven.


Comprehensive School

The basic compulsory educational system in Finland is the nine-year comprehensive school, beginning at age seven, for which school attendance is mandatory (home schooling is allowed, but rare). There are no “gifted” programs, and more able children are expected to help their slower peers. Students enjoy free school health care and a free lunch everyday. In addition, pupils receive free books and materials and free school trips (and even housing) in in the event that they have a long or arduous trip to school. There are few private schools and they can exist only with the approval of the Council of State; they are provided with a grant comparable to that given to a municipal school of the same size.


Teachers are fully unionized and follow state curriculum guidelines, but are accorded a great deal of autonomy as to methods of instruction and are even allowed to choose their own textbooks.


Classes are small, seldom more than twenty students. From the outset, pupils are expected to learn two languages in addition to the language of the school (usually Finnish or Swedish), and students in grades one through nine spend from four to eleven periods each week taking classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles. Inside the school, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and the buildings are so clean that students often wear socks without shoes. Outdoor activities are stressed, even in the coldest weather; and homework is minimal to leave room for extra-curricular activities. In addition to music in school, for example, many students attend numerous state-subsidized music schools after class where for a small fee they learn to play an instrument.


Grading and Assessment: During the first years of comprehensive school, grading may be limited to verbal assessments rather than formal grades. The start of numerical grading is decided locally. Most commonly, pupils are issued a report card twice a year: at the ends of the autumn and spring terms. There are no high-stakes tests.


Upper Secondary education

Upper secondary education begins at 16 or 17 and lasts three to four years (roughly corresponding to the last two years of American high school plus what in the USA would be a two-year community college). It is not compulsory. Students may choose (1) to develop vocational competence and prepare for a polytechnic institute or (2) to enter an academic upper school focusing on preparation for university studies and post-graduate professional degrees. Admissions to academic upper schools are based on GPA, and in some cases academic tests and interviews. In 2007, 51 % of the age group was enrolled in the academic upper school.


The upper secondary distinction is not rigid. Vocational school graduates may formally qualify for polytechnic or, in rare cases, university education; academic secondary school graduates may enroll in vocational education programs. It is also possible to attend both vocational and academic secondary schools at the same time. As in the comprehensive school, tuition is free, and vocational and academic students are entitled to school health care and a free lunch. They must, however, buy their own books


Education in France



Ernest Boyer, U.S. Commissioner of Education until 1980, liked to tell a story about French education to make a point about local control in American schools. “How do you know what your students are studying?” asked an American visitor of the French Minister of Education. The minister consulted his watch: “It is 10:37. At this minute, every 14-year-old in France is opening the Algebra book to page 43,” he declared.


While that degree of control is not the norm today, it is still true that the French education system is far more centralized than that of the United States. The ministry of education defines the educational program, which is carried out by 30 “academies” throughout France, roughly similar to state government. All 1.2 million teachers in France are state employees and represent approximately 40% of all government employees.


Education is compulsory in France from the ages of 6 to 16, but a large majority of children start school well before the minimum age, often as young as two years old. Over 50% of 18-21 year olds in France are still in full-time education or following a vocational training course. Some 64% of all school pupils in France complete their secondary education, and take the high-school leaving certificate examinations, known as the baccalauréat or the baccalauréat professionnel. The official target – estimated as necessary for the needs of the nation – is 80%.


École Maternelle; kindergarten or pre-schools take pupils from age 2 to 6, and prepare them for entry into primary school. The French école maternelle is more than a playschool; the curriculum includes reading and writing, numeracy and even sometimes a foreign language, as well as artistic and creative activities.


École primaire, or école élémentaire: primary schools offer five grades for ages 6 to 11. The curriculum includes literacy and numeracy, with classes in French, arithmetic, geography and history, the arts, and often a foreign language, usually English. Until 2008, the school week was Monday to Saturday morning, with Wednesday free. From September 2008, there are no more classes on Saturday morning. Pupils have an average of 28 hours classes per week.


Collège: Middle schools offer four grades for pupils aged 11 – 15. The collège is thought of as the backbone of the French school system. As in Finland, the French collège is designed to provide all students with a fundamental secondary education, after which a certain degree of specialization will be introduced. The program in collège includes French, mathematics, history, geography, technical education, art/music, physical education, civic education, some science, and at least one foreign language.


Lycée: High School: The lycée covers the last three years of secondary school. There are two main types of lycée, the lycée général (or classique), and the lycée technique. The main function of the lycée is to prepare pupils to sit the baccalauréat exam. Classes in a traditional lycée cover the same range as in collège, with the addition of mandatory  philosophy in the final year. In theory, all public lycées offer the same quality of education, within the framework of the national education system. But in practice the equivalent of British “league tables” are published each year to highlight the very high performance levels of a number of lycées that are commonly recognized as France’s top schools.


The baccalauréat: The baccalauréat is a unitary exam that pupils either pass or fail. It is impossible to pass in one subject and fail in others. The only mark that counts is the final weighted average. The exam board, whose decision is final, often passes students close to the passing mark. Those just below “close” can retake the baccalauréat as an oral exam, a few weeks later. Those too far below to qualify for either are required to re-enroll for another year and try again. The baccalauréat is offered in different series: literary studies, the sciences, and economics and social studies. Typically about 75-80% of students who sit the exam pass it, leading to complaints from academics that the honor these days is simply handed out to any warm body.


Private schools: About 20% of French students are in private schools – almost five times the U.S. rate. About 90% of these schools are Catholic; they select their own teachers and offer religious instruction, but follow the same curriculum as state schools if they wish to receive state support and remain under contract to the state education system.


Education in England


While it has made a great deal of progress, England is still struggling with the educational legacy of centuries of class division, within both society and schools. Until the late medieval period most schools in England were controlled by the church and designed to produce church leaders. Beginning in the 16th century, the English monarch began chartering schools for the sons of landed gentry (the first charter schools!); they were open to anyone who could afford to pay the fees. The best of these were residential schools for boys and became known as public schools (because they were open to the “public” not just aspiring clerics).


Queen Elizabeth I chartered Harrow, the public school the Roundtable will visit. These schools have produced the cream of British society; their graduates dominate British leadership posts in law, politics, government, banking, the arts, and athletics. The 1937 picture on the right is one of the most famous photographs ever published in England. It shows two extravagantly dressed Harrow students waiting to get into Lord’s Cricket Ground for the annual Eton-Harrow match while envious street urchins look on.


These issues persist. In May of this year, two of Britain’s leading politicians commented on the continued inequities in England and English education. The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, declared the dominance of the public schoolboy in every prominent role in British society to be “morally indefensible.” In England, more so than almost any other country, he said, the privileged are likely to stay privileged and the poor are likely to stay poor. A few days later, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Clegg, who led his Social Democrat Party into a governing alliance with the more powerful Conservative Party, pushed for a “social mobility” agenda, backed by a £1.25 billion pupil premium (about $1.9 billion). Noting an old saying that “snobbery is the religion of England”, he thought the saying continued to have “more than a ring of truth today…[W]e have to shake off the outdated, snobbish attitudes of class that are cramping our society and hobbling our economy.”


As recently as 40 or 50 years ago most students in England left school at the age of 14 to take up unskilled manual labor. It was not until 1944, with the Education Act, that Britain established a nationwide system of state-funded secondary schools. It created a tri-partite set of high schools: secondary modern (general education), vocational (technical education) and grammar schools (academic schools often emphasizing Latin and the classics and restricted to students scoring highest on a high-stakes examination known as the “Eleven-Plus”). The tripartite system was largely replaced starting in the 1970s by “comprehensive” secondary schools.


Full-time education has been compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 16 for some time, and the leaving age was raised to 18 in 2008, to take effect in 2013 for 16-year-olds and 2015 for 17-year-olds.


Facts and Figures:

  • Compulsory: Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 16 (inclusive) across England. Education can be offered in state schools, independent schools, or home schools.
  • Public/Private Distribution: About 94 per cent of pupils in England, and the rest of the UK, receive free education from public funds; 6 per cent attend independent fee- paying schools or are home schooled.
  • Curriculum: All state schools follow the same National Curriculum.
  • School Year:  The school year is 39 weeks long and runs from September to July.
  • School holidays: The main school holidays are: Christmas (2 weeks); Spring (2 weeks); Summer (6 weeks).
  • Preschool: Every 3- and 4-year old in England is entitled to 12.5 hours of free early learning per week, in nurseries, playgroups, pre-schools or “child minders” for 38 weeks a year.
  • Primary: Children normally start primary school at the age of four or five.
  • Secondary: Children leave primary school at the age of 11, moving on to secondary school.
  • GCSE: At the age of 16, students in England and Wales (and the six counties in the north of Ireland) take an examination called the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). Study of GSCE subjects begins at the start of Year 10 (age 14-15), and final examinations are then taken at the end of Year 11 (age 15-16).
  • A-Levels: After completing the GCSE, some students leave school, others go onto technical college, while others continue for two more years before taking “A levels” an advanced certificate in three or four subjects that determines university eligibility.


National curriculum assessments are a series of educational assessments, colloquially known as SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) used to assess the attainment of children attending maintained schools in England. They assess 7-, 11-, and 14-year olds. The assessments have been subject to the criticisms that they place children under constant stress for their entire academic lives, and that the principal purpose of national curriculum testing is to produce school league tables to benefit real estate agents.



Ofsted stands for: Office for Standards in Education. It is an independent, impartial body, made up of school practitioners and experts. Every week it carries out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits and publishes the results on its website. Prior to 2005, each school was inspected for a week every six years, with two months notice to prepare for an inspection. Since 2005, the system requires school leaders to complete a Self Evaluation Form (SEF) on a continual basis; inspections address the SEF and are two- or three-day visits every three years, with two days’ notice.


Charter-like schools

Recent British governments and major political parties have promoted charter-like schools under a variety of confusing names. Major changes have introduced accountability and market-based reforms to both strengthen central control of curriculum and encourage greater autonomy at the local level. Blair’s Labour government in 1997 matched a massive increase in investment in children and youth with ambitious goals to raise standards, and support “trust” and “academy” schools. Both are charter-like schools, with the trust schools financed with $2 million donations from corporations and the academies funded by the government through registered charities. The Coalition Government elected in 2010 has advanced an agenda of “free schools” under Michael Gove — schools freed of regulation in return for promises of performance. These schools are not required to employ qualified teachers and Gove has said that he has an open mind on such schools being run for profit.
Saarnilaakso Comprehensive School, Helsinki, Finland


Saarnilaakso School is an upper comprehensive school (Grade 7-9). It describes itself as emphasizing multiculturalism with a European orientation and respecting national culture. Apart from subject mastery, the school aims at providing students with skills in civilized manners, communication and different forms of self-expression.


The school’s multimedia orientation in education is connected with the contents of different subjects. Besides, multimedia is offered as an optional subject and as extra-curricular activity for all students. In a special multimedia-based class ICT (information and communications technology) is efficiently used in the teaching of as many subjects as possible.


ICT, drama, multicultural and health education are integrated as comprehensive units in different subjects in a student’s syllable. Civilized manners are emphasized in all subjects taught at Saarnilaakso School.


The pictures below show the school, a classroom, and ICT students.




École élémentaire de la Mare, Paris, France

École primaire d’application Saint Sébastien, Paris France


Locating information on French schools on the Internet is challenging. We will visit two schools; both are elementary schools since the high schools are involved with examinations. I believe, however, that these are quite different types of elementary schools.


The first, École élémentaire de la Mare, seems to be a typical French elementary school. All I can really locate on it is a Google picture of the street in which it is found! You’ll find that below on the left. The school is in the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, an area known as Belleville, famous in its time as the working class community from which the great entertainers Maurice Chevalier and Edit Piaf emerged, an area that serves as the home today for many North Africans from former French colonies. To the right of the bulletin board outside the school in the picture below can be seen a black plaque commemorating the Jewish students that were led from the school during World War II and transported to Nazi death camps. Such plaques are found on schools throughout France.


The second school, École primaire d’application Saint Sébastien, seems to be a school designed to help prepare new teachers. The key word in “École primaire d’application” is the word “application.” These are public elementary schools in which teacher-trainees take courses, observe classes by experienced teachers, and provide some lessons. This is a school in which potential teachers apply their theory and learn their craft. The picture on the right below is from the Saint Sébastien website.





Bonner Primary School, Tower Hamlets, London


Bonner Primary School is thought of as a “hugely successful” elementary school, one of 20 primary schools in England cited by OFSTED as outstanding and “succeeding against the odds.” It is in a low-income, multicultural district in London with an enrollment made up primarily of Bangladeshi students. It accepts children from Reception (age 4/5) and takes them through Year 6 (age 10/11).


The school, which is under reconstruction, prides itself on a varied, enriched curriculum and the confidence and achievements of its students. “We want the children who attend Bonner to leave us in Year 6 with the skills and positive thinking needed to achieve their ambitions and to lead happy, successful lives.”  The pictures below show the school and some of its students.







Barnfield Studio School, Luton, England


Barnfield Studio School is part of the Studio Schools Trust Network. It bills itself as a new type of school designed to give students a unique learning experience that will equip them with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to succeed in life and work. As well as undertaking key qualifications including GCSEs in Math, English, Science and IT, students will also have the opportunity to study vocational options, choose from Hair and Beauty, Construction, Hospitality and Catering, Engineering, Plumbing or Motor Vehicles. It offers flexible holiday periods, paid work experience, a high degree of personalized support, and an emphasis on working in teams.







The Harrow School, London, England

The Harrow School, commonly known as Harrow, is widely considered to be one of the finest secondary schools in the world. Like its rival Eton, it is an independent, boarding school for boys; it was founded under a royal charter from Elizabeth I in 1572. It enrolls 800-900 boys, all of whom board full time. Graduates are known as “Old Harrovians.”


Harrow has a rich history and tradition, which includes the use of Straw Hats, morning suits, top hats and canes as uniform. The classroom used in “Harry Potter” was filmed in Harrow’s Fourth Form classroom, built in 1615. Harrow’s line of famous alumni includes eight Prime Ministers, foreign statesmen, Members of Parliament, several kings and members of various royal families, and notable figures in the arts and sciences, including George Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and hero who swam the Hellespont and wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and “Don Juan,” while starring himself in real life in the latter role. The pictures below show the modern Harrow and a 17th century engraving of the “Old Schools,” which are still standing.




PISA: The Program on International Student Assessment

The chart that opened this memo highlighted something that receives almost no attention in the United States, but receives a lot of attention elsewhere: the fact that American schools produce 25% of all the top-ranked science PISA 15-year-olds in the world. No other nation comes close. Japan ranks second by this measure, producing 13% of all the top achieving students in science. Finland, which ranks at the top of the league tables among Western nations, produces just 1% of the top-performing science students. Results in math and reading are not available, but there is little reason to believe the results in these subjects would differ greatly.



PISA is an assessment of the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science that is conducted periodically by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an entity made up of the major economies of the world.


While press criticism of American schools in the United States focuses on the fairly lackluster PISA performance of American students according the rank ordering of mean (average) scores, public anxiety in Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, and elsewhere focuses on the superior American performance on the proportion measure compared to local performance. This is an issue on which where one stands depends upon where one sits and upon which statistic is of greatest interest.


The Roundtable will receive a briefing on PISA in Paris. We might want to raise several issues during this discussion. The first is the issue discussed above: the difference between mean performance and the proportion of high achievers. On the following page are two figures from PISA illustrating the different picture of national performance that emerges depending upon which statistic is emphasized. The U.S. is a world-beater, according to the figure on the left, which emphasizes the proportion of all top science 15-year-olds in the world by country. This is clearly a function of our size. On the right, the U.S. is an also-ran in the column ranked by mean science scores. The alarms raised by public officials focus on the importance of science in international competitiveness; since the United States is producing 25% of all high achieving science 15-year-olds in the world, according to PISA, it would seem that the competitive needs of the nation are being met. The United States has the most high-scoring students; it also has the most low-scoring students. That is why its mean scores rank in the middle. The issue PISA highlights for American educators is not global competitiveness but the enduring achievement gap between low-income and high-income communities and families.


What’s More Important?

Proportion of all high scoring science students (left)? Or mean scores (right)?



The obvious question is why does OECD not provide both sets of data to journalists, when releasing PISA results? Without the “proportion” data, pundits, policymakers, and journalists get carried away with the horse-race analogy that dominates American discourse.


The second issue is the extent to which rank-orderings or league tables actually provide meaningful information. Analyzing an international survey unrelated to PISA (Trends in International Math and Science Survey, TIMSS), Brookings Institution researcher Tom Loveless concluded that although U.S. fourth-graders seemed to rank 11th in the world in 2007, closer analysis of the data indicated that American students were essentially tied for fifth place. Rankings can make small differences appear significant, concluded Loveless, even when the differences have no statistical or practical significance. No comparable analyses have been conducted on PISA, which reports on whether a score of 512 or 513 is significantly different from the PISA mean of 500, but not whether 512 or 513 is a statistically significant difference.


The third involves the assumptions built into PISA’s comparative analyses. No responsible researcher would administer the same assessment in New York City and Scarsdale and ascribe the results to school-based outcomes. The research community would complain that such comparisons were based on unmatched population samples and ignored intervening variables such as race, class, parental income, mother’s level of education, and family support for learning. Yet OECD routinely implies that its results reflect school-based outcomes across nations, with barely an acknowledgement of the social correlates of learning. In a discussion of what Americans can learn from China, for example, OECD produced a 70-odd-page analysis focused on curriculum, standards, and teaching that mentioned central control or the Communist Party just once and completely ignored low rates of educational participation in rural China. PISA results might more fairly be described as an analysis of what it means to be educated in a particular society in a particular kind of way.


A related consideration is the extent to which PISA’s national or jurisdictional samples actually reflect the jurisdiction’s students. To take an example that has received a lot of attention: when Shanghai participated in a recent PISA administration, its students led the world, outperforming even those of Finland. Observers were shocked by Shanghai’s dominance, according to a widely reprinted story in the New York Times. PISA spokesmen assured reporters that the results were accurate and that they were representative of the rest of China. It is highly likely, in fact, that Shanghai’s PISA results did not represent Shanghai, much less China.


How is that possible? Scholars of Chinese urbanization and labor markets (who are natives of China) have documented several factors involved with the Shanghai PISA results. First, as the University of Washington’s Kam Wing Chan points out, Shanghai’s poor rural immigrants do not have access to Shanghai’s schools due to the hukou system (mandatory residence permits). When the rural poor move to Shanghai (or any other large city) they remain official residents of their rural province. They cannot access city services including schools; if they want their children to attend school, the children have to return home. In Shanghai, this restriction is likely to involve several million families. Second, in reviewing immigrants for residence permits, Shanghai officials give preference to the most highly educated adults, according to the University of Oregon’s Yong Zhao. So there is a history of admitting students who are likely to be the highest achievers (the children of the well educated) and discriminating against those who are more likely to be the lowest achievers (children of the immigrant poor).


Although hukou restrictions have been loosened somewhat in Shanghai in the last few years, the liberalization arrived much too late to benefit the 15-year-olds assessed by PISA two years ago. It is also worth noting recent scholarship from Pei-chia Lan (a sociologist at National Taiwan University and post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute) to the effect that, even under the liberalized requirements, the children of immigrants are marginalized in Shanghai’s schools. A sort of internal segregation system exists in which rural children are educated in separate buildings within the school compound and the best classes are reserved for Shanghai’s children. (Roundtable members visiting Nanjing in 2011 noticed something similar in one of the schools visited.)


The result of this combination of factors, according to Pei-chia Lan, is that only about 20% of all poor children in Shanghai are enrolled in school in the first year of primary school. That proportion, she reports, drops regularly and step-wise until by the eighth or ninth year (about the time TIMSS would be administered) only 3-4% of Shanghai’s poor children are enrolled in school. The Shanghai student population, says Chan, is an “extract of an extract” of the Chinese student-age population. A more appropriate comparison of American 15-year-olds with Shanghai students would require American PISA assessment administrators to strip out all but 3-4% of poor students from the U.S. sample  (and just about all students with disabilities or those who are not native-English speakers).


While Shanghai may be an extreme example, there is good reason to believe that PISA horse-race figures oversimplify educational outcomes, may inappropriately ascribe results to school-based factors, and may not accurately reflect the student population PISA purports to describe.



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