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Why some countries are winning and others are losing in school rankings

It's PISA day, and the world is freaking out. When the worldwide rankings of school performance were released this morning by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, you could watch the paroxysms of outrage and excitement sweep across the world's time zones. The test results – which measure the academic results of 15-year-olds in math, reading and science – sparked instant celebrations in China and Singapore, national crises in Turkey, Britain, France and possibly even Canada.

Today we'll see furious headlines in countries whose governments promised big education gains but didn't deliver (Britain), national celebrations in countries that have risen (China, Germany), and deep hand-wringing in countries whose test results fall far below their economic performance (the United States).

But beneath the national pride and shame are some telling indicators: It's worth looking at the trends behind the PISA results.

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Winners:

Countries that don't believe in innate ability but rather in hard work (China, Singapore, Poland, Germany)

Some Western countries engage in "streaming" or "selection" of students – picking students at a young age (sometimes 11) for vocational or advanced educational paths. This is based on an assumption that students possess innate ability that is simply there to be discovered.

But countries that avoid selection, and allow all students to compete throughout the academic path, are the leaders. And countries that have abandoned or moved sharply away from streaming and selection – notably Poland and Germany – have seen big improvements in their PISA results. In a must-read blog post today, the British education-policy researcher Sam Freedman notes that Germany and Poland, by reducing selection, "have seen improvements and a reduction of socio-economic status on performance."

And, furthermore, he notes a key OECD finding: "the single biggest reasons why the Far East does so well is that they do not have the fixation with innate ability that many Western countries have" (he then takes a shot at Boris Johnson, the London mayor who recently suggested that poverty must be a result of low IQ). Indeed, the OECD writes that this year's PISA assessment "dispels the widespread notion that mathematics achievement is mainly a product of innate ability rather than hard work."

The no-longer-poor countries (Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, Russia, Hungary)

If the PISA results dispel the notion that students possess innate ability, they also destroy the myth that countries do. Stunning improvements in educational performance over the past decade have been seen in the former basket-case countries of the emerging markets. Many of these countries have introduced all-day schooling, performance-based teacher assessment and quality teachers' colleges. Many have abandoned "cascade" systems that drop students back a year if they fail (and therefore provide an incentive to drop out).

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Countries that give teachers power and authority, rather than experience (Estonia, Mexico, Israel). "A focus on the status of teaching does also seem to be important," Mr. Freedman notes. East-Asian countries have always done this well, but countries such as Estonia, Mexico and Israel, he writes, have "been toughening entry criteria to the profession, raising teacher pay and improving access to professional development." And most of these winning countries, he notes, give autonomy to schools, allowing principals to hire, fire and set some curriculum and rules rather than strictly follow a nationally – or provincially-mandated policy.

Losers Countries with rigid European-style education systems (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland)

"France is the champion of educational inequality," reads the headline in today's Le Monde. France has fallen to a pathetic 25th place in the rankings. Worse, though: If only students from "advantaged backgrounds" were included, France would be an impressive 13th place; it falls because it fails to educate its lower-income students (who would rank 33rd). France, of course, practices a rigid system of secondary education based on pre-selection and rigid, hierarchical teaching. So much for egalité.

But that's the pattern in many countries that have fallen – most dramatically in Scandinavia and northwest Europe, where scores have fallen steadily for 10 years. They have school systems that were designed during an industrial age to educate either elites or factory workers (in separate streams), and are today ill-suited to the universal needs of education.

Specifically, the continental-style education systems are ill-suited to educating children from deprived post-industrial backgrounds or new immigrants. They still drop children back a grade if they fail. They still stream students. They usually have only one teacher in each class, teaching at one education level. They need to learn from the developing countries.

Britain. On paper, Britain performs just fine: Its test results are precisely in line with the OECD average, where they have remained for years. But the problem is that David Cameron's government was elected in 2010 on a promise, however vague, to radically reform the education system. And his education minister, Michael Gove, embarked on what he considered radical reforms to the system – including bringing back the pre-selection of students in some schools. He has responded in classic ministerial fashion, by blaming the erstwhile Labour government for the failings – but the crisis is not going to go away.

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Canada: Canadians don't make as big a deal about PISA results as other countries do, for a good reason: We have 10 very different provincial education systems, and 10 different governments running them, so it's hard to generalize. But the fact is that while Canada remains near the top of the league tables, it has fallen out of the top 10 rankings in math this year, the second decline in a row. Perhaps this will provoke us to start looking at a serious national education policy, so we can catch up to our neighbours across the Pacific.

"This is on the scale of a national emergency," John Manley, CEO and president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and former Liberal deputy Prime Minister, told the Globe and Mail this morning. "We've got the natural resource sector to pay the rent, but that just keeps us in the house. We need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society … Having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs."

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