Hong Kong’s high-school students, the Standard reports, are the second-most dazzlingly brilliant in the entire solar system, according to this year’s UNESCO Big Humiliating List of Global Education Success and Failure, or PISA. The South China Morning Post takes the more politically correct line and celebrates the fact that Shanghai kids have the most powerful brains of all sentient life-forms in the known universe.
What is it with education and rankings? I recently heard about a particular overseas university that had experienced a significant surge in applications from Hong Kong students simply because it had risen to 40th or whatever in some Most Wonderful Colleges table; it stuck in my mind because I had never heard of the institution. And the PISA results cause a similar flurry of attention – not just in the genius Asian territories that come out on top, but in the semi-dumbass Anglo countries that agonize about clustering in the middle (hey – they score well in the drugged-up obese teenage pregnancy charts). The Third World places at the bottom probably pay little attention, and I’d like to think the high-performing Nordic and Teutonic nations like Finland and plucky little Liechtenstein nonchalantly take it their stride.
The East Asian societies that head up the PISA list are also the places where teachers, parents and kids are most obsessed personally about ranking individual students. Key word here: ‘obsessed’. This is the home of the tiger mom. The place where fathers camp out for days to pick up school application forms. Where three-year-old kids take dance, piano and Mandarin lessons to impress at their ‘elite’ kindergarten interview. Where childhood is a decade and a half of tutoring, cramming and exams. Where teens with poor grades commit suicide, and the rest go through life fearing books. Where knowledge and understanding alone are unrecognized, and only credentials count. (the municipality of Shanghai, incidentally, appears among PISA’s countries and city-states because the Mainland would rank lower if the barefoot kids of Gansu took part – and even then, the city’s ‘random’ selection of children omits all the migrant offspring. They cheat, basically, but so long as you’re top of the class…)
PISA methodology comes in for some criticism; for example, different nationalities’ reactions to time pressure during tests create gaps in the results. Within countries, on the other hand, comparisons might be telling; in the UK, Wales is dismal, and in the US, the Northeast does far better than the South. Still, the most illuminating aspect of the rankings is how media and politicians react to them.
And then something else comes along… The countries that come at the top of the PISA list are the same ones that have such low fertility rates that their populations are shrinking from the bottom up. London Daily Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is wackily entertaining more than anything else, but the correlation between East Asia’s one-birth-per-woman demographic decline and hyper-competitive education is compelling.
We all know that the low population replacement rate in Hong Kong and the rest of East Asia must have multiple causes, and that among these are tiny overpriced homes, lousy childcare options, long working hours, and much else. But some cause and effect reflected in the PISA rankings seems inescapable: we know that having just one child does not create a fanatical exam-based schooling environment, because Confucian rote-learning goes back centuries to the time of big families; the reverse – focusing effort and resources on just one child in response to rising economic pressure to outperform peers – makes all too much sense.
The darling of Western PISA followers is Finland. Kids there sit at home playing idly with their reindeer-horn building blocks in the sauna until age six or seven, and even when they do attend school, there’s no homework, just lots of creative, learning-by-discovering trendiness – and they still keep up with the Koreans. (Something to do with luring good teachers through high pay, rather than relying on the penniless unfortunates we all know and love who assure us it’s a ‘calling’.) Xinhua wants us to know that Finland’s PISA ranking is slipping, and probably Beijing will announce an air defence zone around Helsinki any minute, but for what it’s worth, I checked: at 1.8, Finnish women have nearly double the number of kids as their East Asian counterparts.