More PISA myths part 2

Analysis by Pat Thomson and Terry Wrigley (continued)

Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director of education and skills (the man in charge of PISA), recently sent a challenging article to BBC News website. Under the title ‘Seven big myths about top-performing school systems’, his press release creates more myths than it dispels.We continue our response.

This time Schleicher rejects xenophobic myths about immigrants, but then suggests that good levels of educational spending aren’t important.

Myth no 2   Immigrants lower results

It is good that the PISA analysts are pointing out that there are stereotypes about immigrants, including assumptions that immigrants will damage education for the existing population. Their data (3) shows that migrants tend to do better at school and are better integrated in countries where there are more of them. They provide some examples of migrants from similar backgrounds migrating to two different countries with very different results. This suggests that migrants’ educational success might depend on the educational and social policy of the receiving country, rather than where they come from.

However, simply focusing on immigrants ignores the kinds of specific racial discrimination that occurs in different countries. Within country data in the UK – none of which is referred to – also suggests that diferent racial and ethnic groups fare differently in the education system. For example we know in the UK that some groups, Black Carribean and Gypsy/Romany pupils in particular, are very badly served by the school system.

Myth no 3   It’s all about money

Here again we find generalisations derived inappropriately from particular examples: “South Korea, the highest-performing OECD country in mathematics, spends well below the average per student.” This statement abstracts a single set of numbers from the real life of a society.

South Korea’s public spending on schools may be low but this is heavily supplemented by private tuition. An estimated $20bn is spent annually on private tuition, in a country with just over 7 million school students – almost $3000 each. This is around 12% of total household expenditure! (4) The time children spend on study is also leading to serious concern. Cramming schools are now banned from operating after 10pm. A recent study of children in a wealthy district of Seoul found that almost 1 in 7 suffered from curvature of the spine, and at least three quarters of Seoul’s high-school students are myopic. (4) The average South Korean child spends 13 hours a day studying. (5) Is this the price of coming top at maths in PISA?

Schleicher’s other example is that students in the Slovak Republic perform at roughly the same level as the USA though it spends half as much per child on schooling. Both countries score quite low for OECD countries in PISA, but it may be worth asking how Slovakia manages to achieve this at less cost. One reason might be the benefits of a more equal society. According to the Gini Index, Slovakia is one of the most equal countries in the world, on a par with Scandinavia, whereas inequality in the USA is twice as high. A lot of the USA’s educational budget may be distributed in highly unequal ways.


  • PISA in Focus 33
  • Mundy, S (2014) South Korea’s millionaire tutors. Financial Times, 16 June.
  • Clark, N (2013) Education in South Korea. World Edudcation News and Reviews, 1 June.


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