Chapter 2: Where to Start

In the 1970s, I was in the best job in the world until Margaret Thatcher became Minister of Education. She established a National Curriculum Committee (1973) and within three years I, along with everyone else in teacher training, was being told by politicians to teach our student teachers how to administer tests to children as young as five.

I acquiesced for another four years, decided that my time on this earth was better spent than in traumatizing young children and looked further afield, ending up as a part-time associate professor at an American university. However, and sadly even more quickly, the USA decided that testing students was also the way to educate our future generations.

In both countries, mainly due to politicians believing they know far more about how students should be educated than professional educators (as the saying goes “power corrupts, absolute power, corrupts absolutely”) policies have been continually implemented disempowering teachers. The results of this extravagance?

Let’s examine hard evidence; not opinion, not prejudiced views, not anecdotal stuff. Let us examine the world of education today.

Where to start?
As mentioned previously, the most comprehensive evaluation and assessment of students’ achievement in different countries is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA or Pisa).

The first comprehensive tests were carried out in 2000 with 265,000 from 32 countries participating, including 28 of the 30 OECD countries. The two OECD countries that did not participate in 2000 were subsequently added in 2003.

Before we view the results of their assessment, which is described in detail in the next chapter, it is worthwhile examining what PISA is about. It is worth doing this because our aim is to provide the best possible information for policy decision-makers and the PISA assessments are crucial in that they give us comprehensive and detailed international comparisons.

In providing the best possible teaching and structure to optimise their learning and wellbeing we need to rise above self-interest and prejudice. We need to know what teaching, what education policies, what administrative structures deliver the goods and which do not. If we are not willing to weed out our own prejudices we are failing the next generation.

What is PISA assessment based on?
In general terms, PISA assesses young people’s capacity to use their knowledge and skills in order to meet real life challenges, rather than merely looking at how they had mastered a specific school curriculum. It assessed literacy in reading, mathematics and science. Students had to understand key concepts to master certain processes and to apply knowledge and skills in different situations.

PISA studies were initiated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as part of its International Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme. This provides the OECD member countries with internationally comparable data about their educational systems. In the context of this programme, PISA aims to examine the outcomes of schools in the participating countries.

PISA studies are the most comprehensive international assessment of educational outcomes. Youth in the age group tested are nearing the end of compulsory education in almost all OECD countries. Thus PISA provides participating countries with information on how well their schools prepare young adults to meet the challenges of the future. Starting in 2000, the studies are completed on a regular basis, every three years.

The PISA assessments do not focus primarily on purely factual knowledge. Rather, they evaluate the wider knowledge and skills needed to participate in social, economic and political life in modern society.

PISA examines the extent to which young adults have acquired these broader concepts and skills and gauges social disparities in educational performance. Additionally, central aspects of the living and learning environment both inside and outside school are analysed, making it possible to pinpoint potential reasons for any disparities identified. This provides a broad empirical base for discussions of school policy decisions.

PISA is planned as a long-term project, each study occurring every three years. Each study covers three areas – reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy. In addition, each study also concentrates and focuses on one of these areas.

In 2000, the study concentrated on reading literacy; in 2003 on mathematical literacy; in 2006 on scientific literacy; while the 2009 concentrated on reading literacy.

In each study (cycle is the term used by PISA), two-thirds of the testing time is devoted to the “major” area (domain is the term used by PISA) that is being studied while a profile and overview of skills is examined in the other two areas being studies.

PISA describes its objectives as follows: “PISA also represents the first attempt to examine cross-curricular competencies in a large-scale student performance study. The first cycle looked at important prerequisites for self-regulated learning, including learning strategies, interest and subject-specific self-concepts. In the second cycle, general problem-solving skills will be investigated. 

Finally, the possibility of assessing student proficiency in the use of modern information and communication technologies is under consideration for the third cycle. Background questionnaires are used to gather contextual information about the students and their schools. 

On the student level, these include characteristics such as social background, aspects of students’ relationships to parents, attitudes to reading and reading habits outside school. On the school level, the questionnaires tap aspects such as the school’s human and material resources, class size, organisational structures and decision making processes. 

PISA provides participating countries with the following information about their educational systems: Profiles of the knowledge and skills acquired by students approaching the end of compulsory education in curricular and cross-curricular domains. These profiles will pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of educational systems and locate areas requiring action. 

Contextual indicators relating performance to student and school characteristics. Information on these relationships can shed light on the effectiveness of educational systems (e.g., to what extent they succeed in weakening the link between student performance and social background) and draw attention to possible points of intervention.”

The student samples were selected such that they were representative for the total population of 15-year-olds enrolled in educational institutions. Youth in this age group are nearing the end of compulsory education in almost all OECD countries. PISA thus assesses selected outcomes of educational systems towards the end of compulsory schooling.

The above provides the basis for our objective of providing the necessary information for policy-makers in order that they will implement policies that will achieve success in terms of student achievement as far as comparisons of different countries is concerned.

Politicians and administrators in countries such as UK and USA should be examining such evidence and creating and implementing policy based on the policies of successful countries especially Finland; Finland being the overall best performing country. We shall examine the Finnish education system in some depth later.

We shall also make recommendations regarding content and methodology based on sound theories of child development and methodology of teaching emphasising that relating content and methodology to the age and stage of development is crucial in determining and optimising outcomes.

Hopefully, such descriptions may have an influence on future New Zealand policy-makers. It would appear that the present National Party’s education policies, since they took power in 2008, will not be changed even though the result of their implementation will be the harming of childrens’ development, wellbeing and learning.

1. “Overview of the PISA Study” – Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin, 2002

Contents for The Task for NZ Education – Chapter 2: Where to Start
© ISBN: 0-909001-61-8
Chapter 1:   Setting the Scene
Chapter 2:   Where to Start?
Chapter 3:   OECD PISA Reports
Chapter 4:   UNICEF Report
Chapter 5:   Decline of USA
Chapter 6:   The UK Experience
Chapter 7:   My UK Experience
Chapter 8:   People at the coalface
Chapter 9:   Stressed out Children
Chapter 10: Finland
Chapter 11: The Interview
Chapter 12: Pointers for the Future
Chapter 13: Music – The Crucial Ingredient
Chapter 14: Conclusion

If interested, Mollet Learning Academy (MLA) and WideHorizon Education Resources (WER) produces Teaching Packs that are designed to appeal to the heart, head and hands. Original material is the Mollet Learning Academy (MLA) Teaching Packs (written initially for New Zealand teachers). On request from USA teachers, monitoring and assessment procedures were added and renamed WER Teaching Packs to distinguish them from MLA Teaching Packs. All lessons are designed to appeal to the heart, head and hands. Please visit 

Dr. David Mollet
NZ: h 09-555-2021 m 022-101-1741, 41 Hilling St, Titirangi, Auckland 0604 
USA: 619-463-1270, 6656 Reservoir Lane, San Diego, CA 92115 (Skype waldorfedu)


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