Who Cares About PISA?

Germans are wringing their hands again about the latest PISA study.  Don’t worry, Germany –American schoolchildren fared even worse! Kevin Drum asks a pertinent question: do PISA results actually measure anything important to success in the real worldReferring to a previous scare about the terrible state of American schools in the 1970s, Drum notes:

And yet, despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since. Ditto for Gen X and Gen Y [the current generations]. Somehow, having teenagers who produce mediocre secondary school achievement scores compared to their counterparts in Europe and Asia doesn’t seem to have much real-world effect on actual global success.

I dunno. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a German friend of mine about a decade ago. We were chatting about secondary education in our two countries, and long story short, German kids are better educated than American kids. At least, it sure seemed that way. But if that’s the case, I asked, why does the American economy continue to do so well? Shouldn’t Germany be kicking our ass? He shrugged and then told me a story about how rigid the German school system was and how long his brother had had to fight to get a decent (i.e., non-vocational) education.

I think Drum, with species-typical American nonchalance and pragmatism, has a point here.  I have met plenty of young Germans who are imposingly well-educated — they can read Latin and sometimes even Greek, have excellent handwriting, an astounding grasp of European and world history, and often can play a musical instrument pretty well to boot.  They learned to do all of this in their Gymnasium.  They’re well-rounded and well-mannered.

But I’m also surprised at what they don’t know.  I often have to explain to them what an ".mp3" or a "blog" or a "spam filter" is.  Until about 2006, I could not take it for granted that all the students in a university classroom would actually know what Google is.  They also frequently know very little about macroeconomics; for instance, they don’t understand why price controls never work, or what a central bank does.  My hypothesis is that their education reflects not only the the areas of interest but also the areas of disinterest of middle-aged German teachers — whether right-wing (who cares about all these newfangled technologies softening the brains of our youths? Let them translate Horace!) or left-wing (who cares about the neoliberal pseudo-science ideology of "macroeconomics"?  Let them write a paper about the Scholl siblings!).

Now, far — very far — be it from me to criticize a broad humanistic education.  But for all of its undoubted spiritual potential, it builds very few of the skills necessary for competition in the 21st century (except for intercultural competence, in which Germans are generally light-years ahead of Americans).  My point is also not that Germany is doomed — I see no reason why the German economy won’t continue to putter along at its usual modest, but consistent rate of growth over the next few decades. 

However, I think PISA results tell us almost nothing about a country’s future prospects.  The innovations of the future that will matter economically will come from young people who have terrible handwriting, think Mozart is a kind of candy, communicate in grunts, don’t know the difference between a species and a genus, spend most of their free time listening to Korn and SIDO on their .mp3 players — and discover a new algorithm that lets you store 500 movies on your mobile telephone, and watch them in 3-D surround sound on special goggles.

21 thoughts on “Who Cares About PISA?

  1. When I started english in 7th grade, I had to learn very fast, that my teacher, who was about 50 years old by then, had no grasp of spoken english whatsoever. She was able to write perfectly sentences but not in the least to talk fluently without thinking first about what to say. I hoped this changed by now but was absolutly shocked, when i met a student from university who was going to start her first assignment as a teacher of english. As you might imagine, her english was exactly the same as my teachers.

    As I read about PISA, my thinking was similar to yours Andrew but different considering the American system. Yes, most cool little gadgets come from your country, but it is terrible, how self centered the education is. I see why one has to learn the history of his own country but America neglects history of the rest of the world, which should not be done. I think, the German educational system is totally flawed mainly by old teachers, who don´t want any change but I don´t think that the US system is in the least better. They´re just different.

    And I don´t think that there will be something good made by someone who´s listening to SIDO, KORN on the other hand….

  2. I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently (he sells antiquaric books, which says something…). His opinion was, that the main advantage, the american economy has enabeling it to dominate, is the brain drain, America causes arround the world. The mindset of these people going to America creates a comtetition, that simply doesn’t exist in Europe to that extent.
    And the success of that mechanism makes intercultural competence irrelevant to Americans to this day. As long as they stay at home…

    And he went on about the worth of traditional education etc.

    But I think he has a point there. And I think that this will change. People will go to Asia. Europe will be a island of ancient and contemporary art,designe,style etc. And America. I courious, we will see. But I am quite optimistic. Europeans underestimate America.

  3. “Europeans underestimate America.”

    Europeans have underestimated America for more than 200 years and I see no reason for this to stop. The ‘gymnasium’ generation often obtain a remarkable mastery of historical fact, something which I personally value because collecting useless historical facts is one of my hobbies. But in talking with well-educated Europeans I frequently find a curious lacunae in knowledge of historical themes – at least at a practical useful level. They are fond of the broadest and most sweeping of historical theories – Gibbons, Spengler, and Marx. But there is frequently no in between.

    What I’m asserting is that the European not infrequently knows the facts and also has a belief in Marxist ‘force of history’ or the like – but don’t seem to have any curiosity about why politics, technology, or culture develop in the ways that they do. I find that middle ground to be the armature upon which I can base grand theories actually connected to a factual basis – I can’t see how people do without that – but they obviously do.

  4. “The mindset of these people going to America creates a comtetition, that simply doesn’t exist in Europe to that extent.”

    The US has ‘brain-drained’ Europe from the very first. The US is where many generations of European dissenters have gone. Increasingly the dissenters from all over the planet. It makes for a very uncohesive but also very creative mix and is one reason that socialism and the welfare state never took the same deep root in the US as they did in Europe, I think.

  5. “The mindset of these people going to America creates a comtetition, that simply doesn’t exist in Europe to that extent.”

    The US has ‘brain-drained’ Europe from the very first. The US is where many generations of European dissenters have gone. Increasingly the dissenters from all over the planet. It makes for a very uncohesive but also very creative mix and is one reason that socialism and the welfare state never took the same deep root in the US as they did in Europe, I think.

  6. “The mindset of these people going to America creates a comtetition, that simply doesn’t exist in Europe to that extent.”

    The US has ‘brain-drained’ Europe from the very first. The US is where many generations of European dissenters have gone. Increasingly the dissenters from all over the planet. It makes for a very uncohesive but also very creative mix and is one reason that socialism and the welfare state never took the same deep root in the US as they did in Europe, I think.

  7. I don’t think the performance of students from the gymnasium is the main German worry after the PISA shock. Nor do I think that things like handling a .mp3 player, playing a musical instrument, driving a car or ability to perform latin American and standard dances should be teached at school, leave alone at a senior high school level. Those things are usually tought outside school by some element of the civil society or another.

    The real problem are those students that don’t make it to gymnasium – probably an overall majority in Germanys infamous three-tiered school system. For them, the qestion weither knowledge of mathematics and/or ancient languages and/or macroeconomy makes you a better scientist or engineer or business executive is largely irrelevant. Their problem is how to learn basal literacy, how to walk three steps backward without tripping over and turning turtle, and how to find a job in a service economy whose demands are totally at odds with the macho gangster mentality of both Islamist/Turkish nationalist west German and national bolshevik east German Hauptschule (roughly junior high school) graduates.

  8. Gerd wrote: “Europe will be a island of ancient and contemporary art,designe,style etc.”

    Ahh… I think that prophecy is even older than Europe underestimating America (as Europe surely is – on so many levels) and has been proven wrong enough times by now. All the fancy little theories about this or that country dominating the world in x years (think about the fear of Japan in the 1980s) are pointless, because they normally don’t take into account a) the possibility of the rest of the world to react and adapt and b) take current trends for granted for all eternity.

    I don’t see any “doomed” future for Germany OR the USA.

    Anyway, the only culture with real chances for world domination could be Mareks favourite, by sheer demographic power. 😉

  9. RE Latin

    I’d prefer a kid who could read Horace to a zoned-out Internet zombie.

    Quality of life’s more important than increasing the GDP.

  10. I think your arguments are bit to …american. You’re discussing education with reference to national economic prospects which sounds very reasonable (it IS, of course) but this isn’t the main concern of those German parents who are so frightened by the PISA results. What they have in mind are the individual careers of their children and the competition between students from different federal states and between students from private and public schools. Why do you think are especially Catholic private schools so popular? Simply because the proportion of foreigners – free-spoken: turks – is presumably lower. From my own expericence, I know a lot of academics – the usual suspects, openly liberal Gutmenschen, very concerned about human rights in Tibet, the situation of women in Saudi-Arabia or the survival of the polar bears and expecially proud of supposedly having no TV set at home – who are more racist in private life than the average blue-collar worker in Saxony-Anhalt. But in difference to the poor blue-collar workers, they know how to elaborately discourse. Just ask your academic colleagues on which schools their children go…

    Education, especially humanistic education, was always a very powerfull tool for social differentiation in Germany because it’s completely useless for practical problems. You can trace this elitist thinking even back to the dominating philosophical trends; the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Empirism and Pragmatism, extremely appropriate for the the rise of modern natural sciences with all of its societal effects like the Industrial Revolution, capitalism and democracy, and German Idealism on the other hand with its anti-modernistic elements and skepticism when it comes to modern science and technology.

    Of course, this kind of cultural capital today isn’t as important as thirty years ago. Fundamental changes in the labor market have shaped the requirements. Clerks (teachers, too…) and engineers were the typical German professions for social climbers. But even today, you will find definitely more students with non-academic parents who are studying mechanical-engineering than, say, jurisprudence. And it’s no coincidence how important social background is even today in Germany – also a result of the PISA study. There’s an educational arms race going on, where especially academic parents are doing nearly everything to guarantee the Abitur of their children.

    I often have to explain to them what an “.mp3” or a “blog” or a “spam filter” is. Until about 2006, I could not take it for granted that all the students in a university classroom would actually know what Google is. They also frequently know very little about macroeconomics; for instance, they don’t understand why price controls never work, or what a central bank does.

    I suppose you are talking of students who are studying law. Well, who’s studying law in Germany? Typically, privileged people who hadn’t a clue about mathematics and the natural sciences in school…

    The situation also heavily depends on the federal state you are from and individual teachers. It makes a huge difference if you are from Bavaria or Baden-Wuerttemberg with their politically stabile education policies or from North Rhine-Westphalia or Bremen. I went to school in Rhineland-Palatinate where the SPD never tried to change the “conservative” school system with Gymnasium, Real-and Hauptschule into their prefered Gesamtschule, because this would be political suicide. We already had informatics as a course offer in the 1980’s, so don’t worry – I’m pretty sure students definitely know how to find SIDO’s “Arschficksong” with the help of Google hacks… And especially in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Wirtschaftsgymnasien are quite popular.

    And by the way, MP3 is a German invention by the working group around Karlheinz Brandeburg of the Fraunhofer-Institut für Integrierte Schaltungen (IIS) in Erlangen. The commercial utilization (e.g. MP3 players), of course, was implemented by companies in other countries.

  11. “What they have in mind are the individual careers of their children and the competition between students from different federal states and between students from private and public schools. Why do you think are especially Catholic private schools so popular?”

    “I know a lot of academics – the usual suspects, openly liberal Gutmenschen < ...> who are more racist in private life than the average blue-collar worker in Saxony-Anhalt.”

    Dont’ feel too bad about this, Steffi. It’s an international phenomena and certainly not limited to Germany. I saw it in the US and also in the UK now. Indeed it’s more like a national fetish here in the UK, much more pronounced than in the US (or Germany, I think).

    And the fear! Every time the UK government makes any move to give the lower classes a minor break on university admissions the caterwauling is fearsome. Even though studies show that the scions of upper middle classes who attend the elite private schools and selective grammar schools get into the top universities at 500% of the rate of the lesser breeds.

    The same in the US. Over 60% of admissions to ‘selective’ universities are admitted with some kind of preference. A few (very few) of the preferred are admitted from affirmative action, and very few of those admitted under affirmative action come from lower-class members of ‘disadvantaged’ minorities.

    The dirty little secret is that the preference system really advantage upper middle class and intelligentsia class caucasian/asian/negro/hispanic students over less prosperous students from the same races. There are legacy admissions (Father/mother/grandfather/grandmother attended the school, su junior gets a preference). Then there are athletic scholarships, many of which are handed out for ‘upper-class’ sports like ice hockey, lacross, field hockey, and ice skating.

    There is a vicious class system growing all over the western world – and no mistake!

  12. “What they have in mind are the individual careers of their children and the competition between students from different federal states and between students from private and public schools. Why do you think are especially Catholic private schools so popular?”

    “I know a lot of academics – the usual suspects, openly liberal Gutmenschen < ...> who are more racist in private life than the average blue-collar worker in Saxony-Anhalt.”

    Dont’ feel too bad about this, Steffi. It’s an international phenomena and certainly not limited to Germany. I saw it in the US and also in the UK now. Indeed it’s more like a national fetish here in the UK, much more pronounced than in the US (or Germany, I think).

    And the fear! Every time the UK government makes any move to give the lower classes a minor break on university admissions the caterwauling is fearsome. Even though studies show that the scions of upper middle classes who attend the elite private schools and selective grammar schools get into the top universities at 500% of the rate of the lesser breeds.

    The same in the US. Over 60% of admissions to ‘selective’ universities are admitted with some kind of preference. A few (very few) of the preferred are admitted from affirmative action, and very few of those admitted under affirmative action come from lower-class members of ‘disadvantaged’ minorities.

    The dirty little secret is that the preference system really advantage upper middle class and intelligentsia class caucasian/asian/negro/hispanic students over less prosperous students from the same races. There are legacy admissions (Father/mother/grandfather/grandmother attended the school, su junior gets a preference). Then there are athletic scholarships, many of which are handed out for ‘upper-class’ sports like ice hockey, lacross, field hockey, and ice skating.

    There is a vicious class system growing all over the western world – and no mistake!

  13. I think the article makes some good points, but as Steffi pointed out already, MP3, along with many other important innovations, are actually German. And could not have been achieved without a certain education. I think the USA would be even more successful, if they had a more thourough education. And I think Germans would be more successful, if their culture would “allow” them to be. However, I think both an even stronger US as well as a stronger Germany are scary thoughts in a way, so it may just be good the way it is 🙂

  14. > Who cares about PISA?

    At the risk of sounding like a tired old grunt, the same people care about PISA that care about whether student are allowed free speech, referring to the other post of a few days ago. German teachers are endowed with premium economic and social status and are therefore expected to produce premium results, i.e. nothing less than a new generation of “Thinkers and Poets”, the continuing Grand Delusion of German society.

    The additional result of class inequality (ranking below America, much to the dismay of all opponents of amerikanische Verhaeltnisse) is just adding insult to injury.

  15. Re the brain drain issue: “People will go to Asia.” I’m not so sure. One reason why America has attracted international talent is because it eventually accepts foreigners who prove themselves as full Americans. That’s not true of Asian societies. You can live in Japan or China for 50 years, and if you’re not Japanese or Chinese, you’ll always be an outsider. For a society to benefit from brain drain, it must be open.

  16. Andrew, I take it you meet with “plenty of young Germans who are imposingly well-educated”, and possibly with the occasional, socially challenged but ingenious geek, too.(1) Do you also meet regularly with those who fancy SIDO’s Arschficksong, Steffi aptly mentioned? How come this, um, class of of people doesn’t appear at all in your calculations? 85% of unskilled labour goes to the EU – only 5% to the US. If you check Europe’s geographical borders, you will find that our contact with the thirld world is exclusively made of Muslim countries – who incidentally produce 35 million unemployed, unhappy, and mostly unskilled young people each year – besides, they have funny ideas on how to structure society. Plus, these countries control the access of Muslim Black Africa to our shores.

    Presently, there’s an ugly deal going between their corrupt rulers and us: You want less black immigrants? Fine, we can handle that, take more Arab immigrants instead, ok? The German president reminded us recently that the industrialised countries subsidise their agrarian sector with one billion dollars daily, while supporting African farmers with one billion dollars – a year. What do we do to solve this problem? We launch a deterrent propaganda video for 250,000 Euros that runs in African countries to weaken migration flows. Good thinking. And we don’t show the video in Arab countries or in Turkey, bacause boy, would that hurt sensibilities.

    France handled this unskilled migration even worse and ineptly as we did, resulting with it’s 10% Muslim minority increasingly behaving rather disorderly. Certainly, the US can do with 13% rather unhappy folks living in its ghettoes, there are weapons and prisons aplenty to handle the problem and to keep our well-educated ilk safe and comfy. But need we have this over here, too? With percentages that will not be anything like 13%? Before I moved to SO36 I used to whip up exactly the same amount of specious argumentation to further ignore comfortably what I chose to ignore then.

    > Andrew: My point is also not that Germany is doomed — I see no reason why the German economy won’t continue to
    > putter along at its usual modest, but consistent rate of growth over the next few decades

    May be we are because around 150,000 Germans leave each year? Last time I checked numbers one seventh of our post docs were among them. I have no stats on the numbers of unemployed and unskilled leaving, whether autocthone or of migrant origin. However, it should be fair to assume that they are not likely to want to move overseas, nor are they likely to be welcome. Of course, we get new immigrants, too, though less then we let go. The UK and Ireland are reported to attract most skilled migration in Europe, last not least because there’s less of a language barrier to educated foreigners, who are likely to have learned English, though not necessarily German or Italian. So, may I assume that we get a little more than 85% of unskilled labour in exchange for our wanderlust intelligentsia?

    > Andrew: except for intercultural competence, in which Germans are generally light-years ahead of Americans

    Excuse me?! Where do Muslim immigrants fare better? In Hartz IV-Neukölln and rioting Paris Saint-Denis or in the USA and Canada? We’re world class though, when it comes to polyglotly suck up to North African potentates which we want to purvey us with natural gas and to deter black folks from south of their border. And yes, our autochthones are polyglot and suave more often than not, much to the delight of tourists and visiting lawyers appreciating Altbier and dolce vita. Our immigrants tend to be none of that and pissed on top of it.

    1. Geeks are ingenious, we just now that and don’t stereotype, don’t we? May be we do: the folks I encounter in the Turkish quarters do dig SIDO and mp3 players, they all have PCs, mobile phones, and TV sets, and they do know how to handle these gimmicks, but they prefer Muhabbet over Korn (as does our nitwit Foreign Minister) – and that is a problem, as the guys around here rather tend not to be ingenious:

      Gewalt von Jungen, männlichen Jugendlichen und jungen Männern mit Migrationshintergrund in Berlin – Bericht und Empfehlungen einer von der Landeskommission Berlin gegen Gewalt eingesetzten Arbeitsgruppe

      Here’s a link to the spicy bits plus links to the whole study on the Berlin senate’s site.

  17. Andrew, I take it you meet with “plenty of young Germans who are imposingly well-educated”, and possibly with the occasional, socially challenged but ingenious geek, too.(1) Do you also meet regularly with those who fancy SIDO’s Arschficksong, Steffi aptly mentioned? How come this, um, class of of people doesn’t appear at all in your calculations? 85% of unskilled labour goes to the EU – only 5% to the US. If you check Europe’s geographical borders, you will find that our contact with the thirld world is exclusively made of Muslim countries – who incidentally produce 35 million unemployed, unhappy, and mostly unskilled young people each year – besides, they have funny ideas on how to structure society. Plus, these countries control the access of Muslim Black Africa to our shores.

    Presently, there’s an ugly deal going between their corrupt rulers and us: You want less black immigrants? Fine, we can handle that, take more Arab immigrants instead, ok? The German president reminded us recently that the industrialised countries subsidise their agrarian sector with one billion dollars daily, while supporting African farmers with one billion dollars – a year. What do we do to solve this problem? We launch a deterrent propaganda video for 250,000 Euros that runs in African countries to weaken migration flows. Good thinking. And we don’t show the video in Arab countries or in Turkey, bacause boy, would that hurt sensibilities.

    France handled this unskilled migration even worse and ineptly as we did, resulting with it’s 10% Muslim minority increasingly behaving rather disorderly. Certainly, the US can do with 13% rather unhappy folks living in its ghettoes, there are weapons and prisons aplenty to handle the problem and to keep our well-educated ilk safe and comfy. But need we have this over here, too? With percentages that will not be anything like 13%? Before I moved to SO36 I used to whip up exactly the same amount of specious argumentation to further ignore comfortably what I chose to ignore then.

    > Andrew: My point is also not that Germany is doomed — I see no reason why the German economy won’t continue to
    > putter along at its usual modest, but consistent rate of growth over the next few decades

    May be we are because around 150,000 Germans leave each year? Last time I checked numbers one seventh of our post docs were among them. I have no stats on the numbers of unemployed and unskilled leaving, whether autocthone or of migrant origin. However, it should be fair to assume that they are not likely to want to move overseas, nor are they likely to be welcome. Of course, we get new immigrants, too, though less then we let go. The UK and Ireland are reported to attract most skilled migration in Europe, last not least because there’s less of a language barrier to educated foreigners, who are likely to have learned English, though not necessarily German or Italian. So, may I assume that we get a little more than 85% of unskilled labour in exchange for our wanderlust intelligentsia?

    > Andrew: except for intercultural competence, in which Germans are generally light-years ahead of Americans

    Excuse me?! Where do Muslim immigrants fare better? In Hartz IV-Neukölln and rioting Paris Saint-Denis or in the USA and Canada? We’re world class though, when it comes to polyglotly suck up to North African potentates which we want to purvey us with natural gas and to deter black folks from south of their border. And yes, our autochthones are polyglot and suave more often than not, much to the delight of tourists and visiting lawyers appreciating Altbier and dolce vita. Our immigrants tend to be none of that and pissed on top of it.

    1. Geeks are ingenious, we just now that and don’t stereotype, don’t we? May be we do: the folks I encounter in the Turkish quarters do dig SIDO and mp3 players, they all have PCs, mobile phones, and TV sets, and they do know how to handle these gimmicks, but they prefer Muhabbet over Korn (as does our nitwit Foreign Minister) – and that is a problem, as the guys around here rather tend not to be ingenious:

      Gewalt von Jungen, männlichen Jugendlichen und jungen Männern mit Migrationshintergrund in Berlin – Bericht und Empfehlungen einer von der Landeskommission Berlin gegen Gewalt eingesetzten Arbeitsgruppe

      Here’s a link to the spicy bits plus links to the whole study on the Berlin senate’s site.

  18. > From my own expericence, I know a lot of academics – the usual suspects,
    > openly liberal Gutmenschen, very concerned about human rights in Tibet,
    > the situation of women in Saudi-Arabia or the survival of the polar bears
    > and expecially proud of supposedly having no TV set at home who are more
    > racist in private life than the average blue-collar worker in Saxony-Anhalt.

    Steffi,

    I know these people only to well. My fathers boss prided himself of having thrown the TV set out of the window. In my opinion, he made a complete ass of himself – an academic in his mid fourties that behaved like an adolescent hooligan – but he was immensly proud of this act. You are dead accurate on the racism aspect: Gutmenschen may love muslims that stay at home and kill a few Americans and Israelis by the way, but they most definitely don’t want to have one of them as a classmate for their children. As I life in a largely protestant region, it will be an anthroposophic private school rather than a catholic one, but the effect is the same. But where on earth did you met a German Gutmensch that criticised the situation of woman in the muslim world? As I pointed out above, Gutmenschen would never dare to criticise what they consider muslim “culture” (as opposed to “decadent” or “superficial” western “civilisation”). After all, “culture” keeps potential competitors away from their childrens classrooms… 😉

    > Well, who’s studying law in Germany? Typically, privileged people who hadn’t a clue about
    > mathematics and the natural sciences in school…

    Well, you might be right about about the natural sciences, but I think the average law student has a greater interest in economics than, let’s say, an average engineering student.

  19. “May be we are because around 150,000 Germans leave each year? Last time I checked numbers one seventh of our post docs were among them.”

    Well, but I’m certain that you keep most of the humanities types – the ones who worship the ground the late Jacques Derrida walked upon and who spread mass confusion among undergraduates. Or is it boredom? Both? And the Jurisprudence postdocs of course. They probably stay (or move to Bruxelles, not too far away).

    Surely it’s only the relatively useless research scientists and technologists (useless scum) who leave in great numbers, later to return for brief visits towing their Nobel Prizes along.

  20. “May be we are because around 150,000 Germans leave each year? Last time I checked numbers one seventh of our post docs were among them.”

    Well, but I’m certain that you keep most of the humanities types – the ones who worship the ground the late Jacques Derrida walked upon and who spread mass confusion among undergraduates. Or is it boredom? Both? And the Jurisprudence postdocs of course. They probably stay (or move to Bruxelles, not too far away).

    Surely it’s only the relatively useless research scientists and technologists (useless scum) who leave in great numbers, later to return for brief visits towing their Nobel Prizes along.

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