Friday, 6 December 2013

What do PISA scores really measure? And what was George W. Bush really thinking?

Let's leave aside the "China" figures (in fact a game-the-system Shanghai). Even so, the story, pretty consistently, is that if you take advanced industrial economies where everyone has enough to eat and so on, then east Asian children do better than those of west European countries and their former colonies. For all that England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany, France and the United States have hugely varying approaches to educational philosophy, educational administration, educational language, importance of school sports etc etc etc, the children of these countries end up in pretty much the same place. Meanwhile, countries with histories and languages as different as South Korea and Singapore also consistently end up in much the same place - i.e. with better results that the likes of France and Germany.

Isn't the obvious answer that PISA is measuring intelligence, not schooling? (You'll have to wait a bit to get to George W. Bush - after the break.)


Here's a test for the intelligence hypothesis: what happens when you take children and expose them to the same schooling. In England, it won't surprise you to hear that Chinese children do best.  Let's take somewhere on the other side of the world - California. Turns out that the same is true there. (I think it is pretty well-known that US universities are more European and less east Asian that pure academic merit would suggest. Here's one link, but there is a substantial literature on this topic.) In fact, Chinese children do best across the world.

So east Asian children are, by and large, cleverer than west European ones. Probably the adults are too. One might be interested in why this is the case, but I want to ask a different question.

Say you were in charge of the US, a country of 300m people who are, on average, middle-intelligence Europeans. You've got some more countries on your side, but they are only as bright as you. You are in strategic competition with China, a country which seems likely, once everyone gets enough to eat and so on, to be a country of 1bn academically high-achieving east Asians. Does the fact that you are probably going to be out-thought matter? If it does, what can you do about it?

Let's assume it does matter. Let's assume that one of the reasons why China has generally had more highly developed administration, bureaucracy, science and literature than Europe is that, well, Europeans are a bit dim in comparison.

So what can you do? (1) You can import more east Asians. It's a start. There are 1 billion Chinese in China and the US is unlikely to beat that, but it can help close the gap.

(2) You can try to get some other east Asians on your side: Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Singaporeans.

(3) You can try to find out who outside east Asia is likely to be pretty bright as well. The second best achieving ethnic group in England is south Asians. Once everyone has enough to eat to India, they will probably be surging up the PISA rankings too. And Indians have had the historical edge over Europeans in literature, science etc etc as well. So you will probably want to import a lot of Indians (especially to work in your high-tech industries and universities) and you will want to become good friends with India itself.

All of that seems to be broadly in line with well-known US domestic and foreign policy or observed tendencies. But it seems to me that there is one further conclusion that you would reach if you were in charge of the US. (4) If you're going to have a fight, make it a fight that is not a 'who is the cleverest?' battle. You're not going to win a cyberwar, for example, and if you can't keep your secrets safe from Edward Snowden, you won't be able to keep them safe from a dedicated Chinese hacking programme. You want to fight on the territory of brute force. Ideally you don't want to fight at all, but you at least need a credible reputation for using brute force to deter attacks.

Let's bring in George W Bush. He was always being told (rightly or wrongly) that he was not the brightest. Maybe he got thinking about what to do if you aren't the brightest. In any case, he was very keen on building up relations with other east Asian countries and with India, he was pro-immigration (note also that one of the few issues he has spoken out about after leaving office is immigration reform), and he left office with America having a reputation for using brute force - 'shock and awe'.

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