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State Media Praises China's Failing Corruption Grade; Hilarity Ensues

Say what you will about China's state-run media -- they are enthusiastic cheerleaders. On Dec. 2 Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-graft organization, published its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which scored China at 40 out of 100 points, and ranked it 80th out of the 177 countries and territories surveyed. Yet what caught the attention of China's Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, was the country's progress: Although China's ranking remained unchanged from 2012, its 2013 grade has risen by a single point on a 100-point scale.

The Global Times gleefully covered the news in a widely reposted Dec. 4 article entitled "Transparency International: China's Transparency Index Improves for Three Continuous Years." Transparency International has warned against comparisons with pre-2012 data, in part because the organization has changed its methodology. But this did not stop the Global Times from arguing China's improved grade "shows that the international community continues to think more and more highly of China's anti-corruption efforts." (Corruption remains endemic in China, and President Xi Jinping's months-long effort to curtail it have thus far fallen short.)

Not all commenters were such positive thinkers. Some could not believe that China had earned even a paltry score of 40: One user of Weibo, China's Twitter, suspected "grade inflation," while another argued that "China should be second-to-last, just ahead of North Korea." Concerns about the report's reliability aside, many felt that China's showing did not merit the praise served up by the Global Times. Whether the grade is "40 or 39," lamented one commenter, "You still have to retake that test." Prominent liberal paper Beijing News counseled caution to anyone lauding China's progress: "Don't start celebrating just because our score is up," the paper advised in a Weibo post. "We're still a long ways away from actual ‘transparency.'"

The dueling interpretations of Transparency International's findings show that even in China's highly censored media sphere, counter-narratives to the Communist Party line persist. The Global Times' nationalist bent has already earned it the nickname "Global Turd" from netizens weary of the paper's penchant for falsehoods. For example, in June 2012 it drew online mockery for arguing (unconvincingly) that China was already "a kind of democracy."  

This time, efforts to spin China's corruption problem led some readers to take refuge in dark humor. "That's our strength," one Internet user wrote of China's still-failing marks. "We have so much room to improve."

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How Poland Became an Eastern European Education Powerhouse

The OECD's test score rankings of 15-year-olds around the globe came out Tuesday, and, as usual a familiar set of faces tops the charts. Shanghai (which, as many have pointed out, is not a country), Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Korea, and Japan continue to dominate in math. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to stagnate and declinists continue to fret.

But overlooked amidst this familiar routine is the ongoing rise of Poland: Eastern Europe's new education powerhouse.

Poland -- that ex-Warsaw Pact world-beater -- continued its run up the charts of the last decade, earning spots in the top ten in reading (10) and science (9), and turning in a strong performance in math (14). It outperformed much wealthier countries, from Britain to Sweden, across the board, and even nudged out the Canadians in science.

This is from a country that in the early 1990s had one of the lowest participation rates in secondary education -- that is, high school level schooling -- among OECD countries. When the country took the test in 2000, nearly 70 percent of basic vocational school students tested at the lowest literacy level. The country's transformation has been much-admired in education policy circles. This year, Poland was treated as an education superpower alongside the likes of South Korea and the vaunted Finns in journalist Amanda Ripley's book The Smartest Kids in the World.  As Britain's Daily Telegraph put it: The former eastern-bloc country's schools may "make a poor impression on the outside. But the ageing and slightly shabby appearance of the buildings belie...one of the world's best performing education systems."

How did Poland get from there to here? The end of communism in Poland saw massive reforms of a sort that other societies might struggle to undertake. Like many other eastern bloc countries, Poland had an education system organized around the express purpose of preparing people for jobs. Students were put into a rigid tracking system that promptly funneled them into vocational or technical schools following primary school. Only the top 20 percent of students went on to an academia-focused secondary education.

Part of the overhaul included shortening the amount of time spent in primary school from 8 years to 6, then tacking on three years of middle school so that students had an extra year before being put onto a vocational track. They also included, of course, stripping out the ideological part of the curriculum, developing the concept of a core curriculum to give schools more local autonomy, and introduced a system of tests at the end of primary and middle school, among other reforms.

Are there lessons in Poland's speedy rise up the charts for countries whose education systems might be struggling? That depends, of course, on what you think was really behind the the improvement. As this great blog post by Jay Greene (h/t Ben Wildavsky) points out, the release of these results every three years or so functions as a sort of Rorschach test, where people see what they want to see.  The World Bank believes giving students an extra year before putting them on a vocational track made the difference; Polish educators interviewed by the Telegraph argued that repression under communism gave Polish people a thirst for knowledge. Or maybe you're one of those people who wants to argue that the importance of these tests is overblown.

Whatever the case, it's a reminder that the PISA scores contain more than just the story of "Diligent Asia, indolent West" as the Economist put it, that tends to dominate headlines. So: while you're busy fretting about the Korean or the Taiwanese students who will steal your child's job someday, don't forget to keep an eye on those Poles.

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images