By D. D. GUTTENPLAN
LONDON — Like a school principal handing out a clutch of C grades, Andreas Schleicher unveiled the results from the latest round of the Program for International Student Assessment tests last week.
For Britain, the United States and most of Western Europe, the results ranged from “average” to “poor.” British students, for example, scored exactly average in mathematics and slightly above average in reading and science. ... The United States were below average in mathematics and science but slightly above in reading.
For Asian countries, the news was much more encouraging, with students from Shanghai topping the chart by a considerable margin, but with students from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea all closely bunched at the high end.
Mr. Schleicher, the head of education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the tests every three years to about half a million 15-year-olds in 65 countries around the world, also noted significant improvement in Vietnam. He described it as a poor country whose students outperformed peers from many wealthier nations — and did even better once differences in income were taken into account.
Okay, but Vietnam only tested a sample representing 56% of its students, compared to 89% for the US and 93% for the UK. Let me strategically ignore 44% of my students and I could make California look pretty good.
This is not to say that Vietnam might not be doing pretty well -- it has some of the nationalist characteristics of other high-fliers like Finland, Poland, and South Korea. The Vietnamese attitude seems to be: Hey, we don't have to feel guilty and dabble in all that Cultural Marxist stuff: we're Communists.
Off-topic, but a couple of years ago I read a book by a JP Morgan executive on investing in developing markets. He explained that lots of capital had flowed into Vietnam a decade or so ago on the grounds that it was obviously China Junior. But this hadn't worked out all that well for foreign plungers. He pointed out that the topography of Vietnam is the opposite of the topography of China (which may help explain why long ago the Vietnamese were able to stop the Chinese imperial / cultural steamroller from taking over the way the Chinese empire originating in northern China had taken over what's now southern China). China possesses gigantic flat river valleys (Yellow, Yangtze, Pearl, etc.), like the American Midwest but with multiple outlets rather than just one Mississippi. Like the Midwest, the valleys have good soil. Crops and industrial output can easily be transported to the coast by river, or perpendicular to the rivers by canal, railroad, or road.
Vietnam, in contrast, has a narrow coastal shelf backed by mountains (until you get to the Mekong Delta in the far south). Rivers quickly become impassable. Ports are not very good. Most of Vietnam is physically like a worse version of the eastern seaboard of America: in a word, picturesque but geographically marginal. As Ben Franklin propagandized the British government during the diplomatic negotiations resolving the French and Indian Wars, the country that controlled the Mississippi River Valley would control the world in the 1900s, so don't let the French get back into the heart of the continent.
... Western countries, Mr. Schleicher warned, should not to comfort themselves with the myth that Asian high performance is the result of education systems that favor memorization over creativity.
“The big success in East Asia is not a success in drilling,” he said, adding that the mathematics test required creativity and problem solving skills based on a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.
My experience is that drilling and creative solving of quantitative problems go together. What ability I have to, say, make more sense than most pundits out of PISA scores is based on my being good at simple arithmetic, which I drilled myself on hard as a child -- I'd make up numbers and add them together for fun -- because it was enjoyable to be good at arithmetic. I have almost zero mathematical skill, but I can add, subtract, multiply, and divide like nobody's business.
These days, everybody talks about "critical thinking skills," which seem to be conceived of as the opposite of rote memorization of your times tables. But as a rare critic who has actually helped undermine the reputation of a couple of high-flying nonfiction authors, I've done it mostly through being extremely well-drilled in arithmetic.
Though most of the press coverage in Britain focused on its performance, John Jerrim, a professor at the Institute for Education, said he thought that the big news in the results was neither the continuing rise of Asia nor the relatively flat results from the United States and Europe over all but a sharp drop in the scores for Swedish schools.
“Sweden has the biggest decline of any country in the world,” Dr. Jerrim said in an interview. “They’re down 3.3 percent in mathematics, 3.1 percent in science and 2.8 percent in reading, and that continues a trend from 2009.”
Yet the American and British governments “have followed the Swedish model by opening more and more ‘free schools’ or charter schools,” he said.
Or it may have something to do with the Swedes being truer believers in immigration and refugees than other European countries, especially compared to the emerging northeastern European axis of excellence: Finland, Estonia, and Poland.
His skepticism was echoed by Mr. Schleicher, the O.E.C.D. official, who said, “The data shows no relation between competition between schools and the overall performance level.”
Perhaps the current conventional wisdom of competition / multiculturalism doesn't work well at uplifting the masses?