Thursday, January 06, 2005

Europe Looking North

Ever heard of PISA? No, not Pisa, the pittoresque Tuscanian city with the famous tower. PISA in capital letters. The word that makes the hair of German educators and politicians turn gray. Say P-I-S-A, if you want to see what German Education Minister Edelgard Buhlman looks like when she feels uncomfortable.
PISA is the abbreviation of Programme for International Student Assessment. This programme, which is sponsored by the OECD, undermined Germany's pride as a leading "Bildungsnation." It revealed that German students are by no means leading, but mediocre.
The first report, PISA 2000, sparked a frenzy discussion about the German education system. I assume that it sparked similar discussions in the countries that were also performing badly.
The second report, PISA 2003, saw some improvements, but nevertheless put Germany behind the leading nations in the north of Europe:
  • Students whose parents have better-paid jobs, are better educated and have more "cultural" possessions in their homes perform on average significantly better in all countries than those without such advantages. However, the degree of difference varies. Australia, Canada, Finland and Japan stand out for high standards of both quality and equity, with above-average mathematics performance and below-average impact of socio-economic background on student performance. In contrast, results for Belgium, Germany, Hungary and the Slovak Republic reveal large socio-economic inequalities in the distribution of educational opportunities.
  • In Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Poland and Sweden, parents can rely on high and consistent standards across schools. By contrast, variations in student performance in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Turkey are largely accounted for by performance differences between schools. In Poland, the differences between individual schools' performances have shrunk since PISA 2000, possibly reflecting the introduction of a more integrated school system in 1999.
In effect, there is a vicious circle of unemployed and badly educated parents, who reproduce of badly educated children with almost no chance of stepping out of their parents' footsteps. The problem has taken on such dimensions that many social scientists define the new class of the underprivileged not based on their income, but on their education.
An interesting read in this context is the horryfying feature in Hamburg's Stern called "Das wahre Elend" (The True Misery) on a neighborhood in Essen inhabited by the new underpriviliged.
Meanwhile, European politicians are looking north.

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