Seeing American Schools through the Prism of International Benchmarks
A March Innovation Policy Discussion Group meeting hosted Andreas Schleicher, Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the OECD Directorate for Education, to discuss American education in a global context. Schleicher began his presentation by explaining that countries with strong education systems have greater resources for economic growth and a flourishing society.
Beginning with higher education, Schleicher showed a chart of 22 countries depicting the changes in the global trend of higher education attainment. A high percentage of United States citizens receive a university degree, but in just the last 15 years many countries have caught up to and even surpassed that percentage.
As for elementary and secondary education, the skills that students need in order to be productive and successful in a technology-based and global economy has changed since 1960. Schleicher indicated that routine manual and routine cognitive skills have become less and less important, mostly because these skills are easiest to teach in schools and also the ones that are the easiest to digitize, automate, and outsource. On the other hand, the demand for non-routine analytical skills and non-routine interactive skills has gone up. As such, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which focuses on how 15-year-olds respond to analytical and interactive problems that they have never seen before, is an important measure of how student populations in various countries perform and how successful they might be in the workforce.
The OECD's PISA test is given across the globe – in countries that total 87 percent of world economy. Schleicher explained that, on the most recent PISA test, students from Finland, Hong Kong, China, Canada, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Korea and Germany scored above the OECD average.
In the rest of Schleicher's presentation, he focused on those factors that can explain each country's success.
The participating countries are ranked and evaluated not only based on average student scores, but also on how equitably learning opportunities and academic performance are distributed across their school systems. The results of the PISA study demonstrate that it is not a choice between quality and equality. For example, even in western, rural areas of China, students score highly in math, above the OECD average.
Focusing on both quality and equality, how should countries improve and refine their school systems? Schleicher explained that monetary resources matter, but many other elements are just as important. For example, the United States has one of the most expensive systems, but its students do not perform as well as many countries that spend less. How the money is spent and distributed is critical.
Schleicher explained that the OECD compares where various school systems distribute funding. For example, it collects data on how much money each country spent on upper secondary school teacher compensation as a percentage of GDP per capita. In 2004, the United States spent very little money on teacher pay and classroom materials and, consequently, the teachers had below-average salaries and less instruction time. In contrast, in Korea, teachers received high salaries, though faced large class sizes, while Finland has focused on supporting teachers with a good working environment and keeping classes small.
Ultimately, Schleicher pointed out several characteristics of school systems that are effective across the board and around the world. Great systems attract great teachers and provide them access to 'best practices' and quality professional development opportunities. Almost all high-performing systems have high, rigorous, and universal standards; when these external standards are combined with localized school autonomy, students are most likely to succeed.
Emphasizing the importance of autonomy, Schleicher described OECD data analyzing the impact of autonomy on PISA science scores when controlling for all other factors. He explained that when schools have local autonomy in hiring and firing teachers and have standards-based external examinations, they are proven to have better results. Why? When schools play the central role in the education process, they develop a stronger sense of responsibility for student performance and can be most effective at changing direction or refining methods to give their students greater opportunities to succeed.
As for the next generation of global benchmarks, Schleicher said that the monitoring educational progress is especially important. The education and skills gap, between current levels and what is actually needed in the 21st century, is a serious concern – as it will limit economic growth, productivity growth, and the rate of technological innovation. Where countries choose to put their resources – in public goods such as education, or elsewhere – will be increasingly critical.
Concluding, Schleicher stressed that two factors in particular – national standards and the vision and capabilities of teachers – create the greatest difference in student performance across countries. In the United States in particular, one of the greatest challenges is in strengthening professional development and providing the incentives to attract the best teachers to schools. Efficiency in spending money is also important: the U.S. government should put more money where the challenges are, in schools with a high number of poor and disadvantaged students. Finally, early childhood education is crucial.
Schleicher used the case of Finland to support these recommendations. He pointed out that national standards in Finland are well-implemented because the quality of teachers is very high and all of them are equipped with a Master's degree. Equally important, teachers are highly rewarded for working in high-needs areas and, overall, teachers experience a high level of prestige for their work.
Drafted by Yoon-hee Rho, STAGE Program
Kent H. Hughes, Director, STAGE Program