The PISA Score Nonsense

'Moreover, do we really need millions of workers who suddenly have superior reading, math, and science skills? How much algebra must a worker know to cut the grass or help pour concrete? There are millions of such jobs that must be performed well, even in a high-tech economy. After all, today's cash registers permit even a semi-innumerate cashier to calculate taxes and make the correct change. In addition, capable workers can often acquire the necessary proficiency while on the job as opposed to learning in school, and PISA cannot capture this acquired knowledge. A Marshall Plan to boost PISA scores also risks upping production of better-educated but unemployed youngsters more inclined to loll about in Mom and Dad's basement versus doing challenging work "beneath them."
And just how many super-smart people are really necessary for a nation's prosperity. A million? Ten million? Nobody knows and, I suspect, that the answer is incalculable. Would Apple's net productivity soar if its engineering workforce tripled? Upping a nation's brainpower is not akin to spending billions to extract an ounce of U-235 from tons of U-238.The raw quantity of brainpower is only one of many factors in the national economic productivity and it is foolish to insist that just increasing this one equation element is the magic bullet.
To appreciate this iffy link, consider Israel's mediocre PISA performance. Its overall scores are percentage-wise comparable to U.S. numbers, for example, only about 9% score proficient on math and Israel is in 40th place in science and math. Since the U.S. is about 39 times the population of Israel, one might guess that Israel is struggling in a world where brainpower counts the most. The reality is, of course, quite different -- even in absolute terms Israel is a world leader (also here) as reflected in medicine, military technology, physics, irrigation, and computers plus multiple patents and cutting-edge startups. High-tech firms like Intel, Motorola, Sony, and Microsoft have major facilities in Israel to utilize local intellectual talent despite the lowly PISA scores. Clearly, quantity is not everything when it comes to brain power.'

- Robert Weissberg, 'Beware Educational Hysteria'.


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