International comparisons are never easy and they aren’t perfect. But the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows what is possible in education, and it helps countries see themselves in the mirror of the education opportunities and results delivered by the world’s leaders in education. Even those who claim that the relative standing of countries in PISA mainly reflects social and cultural factors must now concede that improvement in education is possible. In mathematics, countries like Brazil, Mexico, Tunisia and Turkey rose from the bottom; Italy, Portugal and the Russian Federation advanced to the OECD average or close to it; Germany and Poland rose from average to good; and Shanghai-China and Singapore have moved from good to great. Indeed, of the 65 participating countries, 40 saw improvement in at least one of PISA’s three subject areas. These countries did not change their culture, or the composition of their populations, nor did they fire their teachers; they changed their education policies and practices.
We focused this year’s PISA assessment on mathematics. Each year, OECD countries invest over 200 billion euro in math education in schools; but poor math skills still severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs and, at the aggregate level, inequality in the distribution of math skills closely relates to how wealth is shared within nations.
This PISA 2012 assessment came at a time when countries were still grappling with the aftermath of the economic crisis - a period that has brought home the urgency of equipping more people with better skills to collaborate, compete and connect in ways that drive our economies forward, foster employment and reduce social inequality.
A large part of the challenge in education lies in addressing underperformance. Across countries, almost one in four 15-year-olds did not even reach Level 2, the PISA baseline level of proficiency in mathematics, where students have to do little more than employ basic algorithms or procedures involving whole numbers. But in Canada, Korea, Shanghai-China and Singapore, it is one in ten or fewer. According to one estimate, if all 15-year-olds in the OECD area attained at least PISA Level 2 in math, they would contribute USD 200 trillion in additional economic output over their working lives. While such estimates are never wholly certain, they do suggest that the benefits of improvement dwarf any conceivable cost. Part of the issue lies with students living in social disadvantage, and many school systems amplify that disadvantage. According to PISA, advantaged and disadvantaged schools show particularly wide differences in levels of teacher shortages. Attracting the most talented teachers and school leaders to the most challenging classrooms will therefore be key to making headway. Indeed, PISA finds that higher-performing countries allocate educational resources more equitably among advantaged and disadvantaged schools.
A belief that all students can achieve at a high level and a willingness to engage all stakeholders in education – including students, through such channels as seeking student feedback on teaching practices – are other hallmarks of successful school systems. New results from PISA also show that students whose parents have high expectations for them tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn math, and more confidence in their own ability to solve math problems.
But the challenges of school systems are not just about poor kids in poor neighbourhoods, but about many kids in many neighbourhoods. Only 2% of American students reach the highest level of math performance, demonstrating that they can conceptualise, generalise and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. That compares with an OECD average of 3%, and proportions of up to 31% in Shanghai-China. The world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence, and a number of countries have shown how the share of top performers in school can be raised significantly, including in high performers, such as Hong Kong-China and Korea, and low performers, such as Italy, Portugal and the Russian Federation. It is important that raising excellence and improving equity are not seen as conflicting policy objectives. Indeed, of the 13 countries that significantly improved their math performance since 2003, three also show improvements in equity in education, and another nine improved their performance while maintaining an already high level of equity.
Of course, raising outcomes is easier said than done. The status quo has many protectors, and countries need to be bold in thinking and in execution to effect real changes. Obviously, we can’t copy and paste school systems wholesale. But PISA has revealed an encouraging number of features shared by the world’s most successful school systems.
Everybody agrees education is important. But the test comes when education is weighed against other priorities. How do countries pay their teachers, compared to other highly skilled workers? Would you want your child to be a teacher rather than a lawyer? How do the media talk about teachers? What we’ve learned from PISA is that the leaders in high performing systems have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education, their future, more than consumption today.
But placing a high value on education is just part of the equation. Another part is the belief that all children can achieve. The fact that students in some countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education.
In the past, different students were taught in similar ways. Today’s top school systems embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices; they realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents and they personalise educational experiences. High-performing school systems also share clear and ambitious standards across the board. Everyone knows what is required to get a given qualification. This remains one of the most powerful system-level predictors in PISA.
And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff. They watch how they improve the performance of teachers who are struggling and how to structure teachers’ pay. They provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice. And when deciding where to invest, they prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes. Not least, they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers.
High performers have also moved on from administrative control and accountability to professional forms of accountability and work organisation. They support their teachers in developing innovations in pedagogy, in improving their own performance and that of their colleagues, and in pursuing professional development that leads to stronger education practice. The goal of the past was standardisation and compliance; now, top performers enable teachers to be inventive. In the past, the policy focus was on providing education; in today’s top school systems, it’s on outcomes, shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school, about creating networks of innovation.
Perhaps the most important outcome of world-class school systems is that they deliver high-quality education across the entire school system so that every student benefits. Overall, Finland did not come out quite as impressively as in previous assessments; but what makes Finland still special is that only 6% of the performance variation among students lies between schools. In other words: every school succeeds.
Last but not least, high-performing systems tend to align policies and practices across all aspects of the system, they make them coherent over sustained periods of time, and they see that they are consistently implemented.
Of course, there is no single combination of policies and practices that will work for everyone, everywhere. Every country has room for improvement, even the top performers. That’s why the OECD produces this triennial report on the state of education across the globe: to share evidence of the best policies and practices and to offer our timely and targeted support to help countries provide the best education possible for all of their students. With high levels of youth unemployment, rising inequality, a significant gender gap, and an urgent need to boost growth in many countries, we have no time to lose.
Andreas SchleicherDeputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD's Secretary General
This post first appeared on the OECD education today blog site on 3 December 2013, here.
PISA 2012 Results
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment
OECD Youth Portal
PISA for Development
Post-2015 Education and PISA
What can OECD's PISA bring to global education post-2015? (blog)
What are we learning? PISA will cast a wider net post-2015