PISA, TIMSS and higher education, a missing link and a pending disaster for many countries?

Posted on 18/01/2013


The recent release of the TIMSS ranking (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey) generated as usual lots of articles on the “good” and “bad” education systems and how it can jeopardise the economy of a country. But is that really the case? I did a little exercise, using the PISA 2009 results (PISA is testing more items than TIMSS, including many different reading skills, and for more countries), the Global Innovation Index 2012 results, published by INSEAD and WIPO and the unemployment rate for 36 countries, mixing countries which ranked at different levels on PISA and are obviously at different stages of economic development.
While it is not a fully scientific study, what does it show? That basically the results on the PISA test, and more interestingly the results in math, can in no way explain how well a country is doing on entrepreneurship, innovation, high-tech exports, scientific publications,… And none of them can explain the differences in the rate of unemployment between countries. While we could argue obviously that there is a time lag between educating children and having highly skilled workers, professionals and managers, most of the education systems for which we measure the results now are not new. The transformation of the education system in Finland started 40 years ago. Singapore education system has been mainly designed in the 80’s. In other words, if countries are still failing at being innovative, creative, entrepreneurial, and at producing new and original knowledge, it has nothing much to do with the performance in mathematics or science. Interesting, some of the reading skills appear to be related to some innovation indicators, such as the production of scientific articles or domestic patents.
How does that impact higher education?
By putting the emphasis on these criteria, countries are producing college graduates who are not ready for what needs to be taught at universities to make them industry ready and to enhance the competitiveness of these countries. Getting young adults who are trained who were forced to learn without understanding what and why they are doing that, spoon-fed for a faster outcome, used to work alone and trained to perform alone through the pressure from the parents, are lost when it’s time to think critically, be innovative, work in teams, lead a team or speak in front of a small audience. The result is a discrepancy between what universities and their lecturers could teach and what they actually can teach (add the pressure on students evaluations and passing rates) and moreover a discrepancy between the expectations of employers and the graduates produced. In this ocean of missed opportunities, there are islands with great achievements: the schools and universities which can be highly selective. Take the French business schools as an example: they can afford to be highly selective and each candidate is interviewed for 30 to 60 minutes by a panel of academics and managers. So they will tend to select among the brightest in math, physics,… the ones who have already or at least have predispositions to innovative, entrepreneurial or leadership skills. But these elitist institutions are often subject to criticisms due to their high costs and the absence of social diversity. And obviously it does not answer the needs of emerging or in-transition countries, which need to train a high number of highly qualified graduates as soon as possible to fuel the economic growth.
What could be done?
Well, there are many avenues discussed currently, the bottom line being that “other” skills need to be reintroduced in the curriculum, differential learning, flipped classrooms,… K-12 education need to be redesigned taking into account not the immediate satisfaction of school teachers or parents but to make sure that universities get students who are ready to learn and grow to get skills, capabilities and mindsets which are needed by the companies, by the countries and also by themselves to have successful and rewarding careers.