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Pupils in Seoul: Ahead again at Pisa

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Chung Sung-Jun / AP

Almost 700,000 young people from 81 countries took the two-hour test last year, without much success in more than half of the countries: 15-year-olds were significantly worse at arithmetic and reading than in the 2018 Pisa study. In the field of mathematics, the decline is particularly pronounced in Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland – according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

After the first Pisa shock in 2001, the German government showed that it was capable of taking countermeasures. By 2012, the performance of German pupils had improved significantly. But if these efforts are not sustained, things will begin to falter, said OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher at the presentation of the international results in Paris, "this is clearly visible in Germany."

The Federal Republic of Germany has a problem getting talented people interested in the teaching profession. This is not so much due to the pay, but rather to the fact that the job is not attractive enough. Another negative effect is that Germany was very late in digitization, according to the ruling. As a result, the country was less prepared for the pandemic than Estonia or, in particular, the Asian countries.

Details of the German results can be found here:Almost a third of 15-year-olds fail simple math problems.

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However, the decline in performance can only be partially attributed to the corona pandemic, according to Schleicher. In reading literacy, science and mathematics, the researchers registered declining scores even before 2018. "Covid-19 probably played some role, but I wouldn't overstate it," Schleicher said. One has to look at the structural conditions: political decision-makers should take the enduring characteristics of education systems seriously.

What is important? Schleicher analyzes the factors that make an education system resilient: By this he means the ability of a country to maintain and promote learning progress, educational equity and the well-being of students.

Personal support is important

In Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Ireland, Japan, Canada, Korea, Latvia, Macao (China) and the United Kingdom, a large proportion of 15-year-olds achieved basic skills "while at the same time ensuring a high level of socio-economic fairness," the OECD said. In Germany, on the other hand, the proportion of mathematical competence that can be explained by the status of parents is above the OECD average, according to the study.

During the presentation of the results, Schleicher also emphasized how personal support affects the performance of the students. In OECD countries, for example, there is a strong correlation between the availability of teachers for assistance and average mathematics performance. Students who perceived their teachers as support were also more confident that they would be able to learn independently from home.

Parents need to ask questions

"What was it like at school?" is a question that parents should ask much more often, Schleicher said. After all, the interest and support from the parents also has a positive effect on performance. However, the participation of parents in their children's school learning has declined significantly in recent years.

An exception was Macau (China), Mexico and Romania, according to the study. In some other countries, teachers are increasingly reaching out to parents, but the overall picture is a cause for concern. "Parents must not fall prey to the mistaken belief that the education of their children is exclusively the responsibility of teachers," said Schleicher. Promoting cooperation between parents and school would benefit the children.

Schools should also take care of the well-being of children and young people. On average, 16 percent of the 15-year-olds surveyed suffered from loneliness. In the Netherlands and Korea, this is the case for only nine percent of teenagers. "Looking to the future, teachers should encourage children to talk about loneliness in order to break down the stigma associated with it," advises Schleicher.

Even countries that do well in Pisa still have some catching up to do when it comes to children's mental health. In Singapore, for example, a large number of respondents reported a high level of fear of failure and low participation in extracurricular activities such as sports. This is in contrast to Spain and Peru, for example, with lower average Pisa test results.

This shows how complex the situation is, there is no magic cure for social educational success. After all, just under half of the participating countries bucked the trend: they were able to maintain or even improve the Pisa result of 2018, such as Saudi Arabia, Cambodia and Paraguay. "However, many of the education systems with stable performance remained relatively underperforming," but deserve recognition for the improvement, Schleicher explains in the second volume of the Pisa study, in which the data are interpreted.

The effects of the smartphone are also interesting. The Pisa study shows that moderate use of digital devices can have a positive effect on student performance, but it is important to use the technology to support learning and avoid distractions. Those who spend a long time on their mobile phones perform worse: Students who use their digital devices for a maximum of one hour a day in their free time have 49 points more in mathematics than those who do so for five to seven hours a day.