Ask the expert: Global education

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A recent OECD report on education for the new economy found many EU countries were way down the list for basic maths skills amongst 15-year-olds.

The report’s author, Andreas Schleicher, predicts “tomorrow’s high-skilled jobs in innovation and R&D will be relocated in Asia unless the EU and US make significant progress.”

See where your country ranks on our maps based on World Economic and OECD data. Read coverage from our Education Correspondent, John Boone, and case studies of secondary education in the UK, the US, the two top-ranked countries: Singapore and Finland.

What is the root of the problem, and how should it be addressed by policy-makers and educators? Mr Schleicher answer your questions below.

If Asian states produce such high performing students, why do elite Asian universities lose to east European technical schools at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Competition in Computer Programming? Why do western states produce so many more elite researchers in the hard sciences? And why do European societies appear to produce so many more exceptional performing students than Asia?
Steven Celba, US

Andreas Schleicher: Actually, the latest PISA comparisons now show 15-year-old Japanese or Koreans outperforming Western Europeans and North Americans also at the top end of the distribution, particularly in mathematics. But it is certainly true that the quality of learning opportunities at higher education has evolved at a much slower pace in these countries, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

There are no reasons for complacency though. Certainly in quantitative terms, many of these countries are now catching up in that sector as well. In the 1960s, Korea ranked twenty first among the 30 OECD countries in terms of the population attaining a university qualification, now it ranks third.

What is the correlation factor between having good maths skills and R&D jobs development around the world/in the regions included in the study? How did you take into account the different approach to teaching, such as a more pragmatic approach in the US compared to a more academic one in Europe? Do you think that students should have been prepared in advance for the type of test you performed?
Simona Ludosan, Qatar

Andreas Schleicher: We have not been able to correlate mathematics skills and R&D jobs, but what our data clearly show is that individuals and countries that invest heavily in education derive large economic and social benefits from that.

Moreover, among the 30 OECD countries with the largest expansion of college education over the last decade, most still see rising earnings differentials for college graduates, suggesting that an increase in knowledge workers does not necessarily lead to a decrease in their pay as is the case for low-skilled workers. Skills are now also a major factor driving economic growth and broader social outcomes, both in the world’s most advanced economies and in those experiencing rapid development, with the long-term effect of one additional year of education on economic output in the OECD area ranging between 3 and 6 per cent.

But if you make such links, you need to properly account for the time lag between educating young people and when they start contributing to the economy. The US is a good example. It had a big “first-mover advantage” by investing massively into education after Word War II. But if you look a today’s educational landscape, you see that more and more countries reach and surpass US qualification levels. In fact, many countries are now close to ensuring that virtually all young adults leave schools with at least with a high school degree, which the OECD indicators highlight as the baseline qualification for reasonable earnings and employment prospects.

In contrast, the US stood still on this measure and among OECD countries only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the US. Even when including qualifications such as the GED that people can acquire later in life to make up for unsuccessful school completion, the US has slipped from rank 1 among OECD countries for adults born in the 1940s to rank 12 among those born in the 1970s. Again, that’s not because completion rates in the US declined, but because they have risen so much faster in many other countries.

Would you agree that the insidious feminisation of education over the last decade years is rooted in the over-protective need to shield children from hurt and the loss of morale resulting from failing to achieve? Is the gradual removal of competition as exams move to course work and new generous marking schemes designed to minimise failure, coupled with a proliferation of new courses at all levels render the study of traditional maths relatively dull, and the fastest way of reintroducing excellence would be to make the subject compulsory and competitive?
Robert Russell, London, UK

Andreas Schleicher: I think the feminisation of the educational profession has more to do with the incentive structures. If you offer half-day jobs with low pay, it is much harder to get men to apply.

Do you believe that there is a definite correlation between teacher incentives (non-financial as well as financial) and student achievement?
Maia Chankseliani, Cambridge, MA, US

Andreas Schleicher: This is hard to quantify, but many of the best performing countries certainly make significant investments in their teaching profession. That often does not primarily have to do with salaries, but more with creating a professional working environment for teachers that puts them on a par with other professions in terms of diagnosis, the application of evidence-based practices and professional pride.

The image in these countries is one of teachers who use data to evaluate the learning needs of their students, and are consistently expanding their repertoire of pedagogic strategies to address the diversity in students’ interests and abilities.

We also see that schools in these countries adopt innovative approaches to timetabling and the deployment of increasingly differentiated staffing models. Examples include teacher selection processes as seen in Finland, highly specified professional development programmes as with the National Literacy Strategy in England, and teacher promotion based on professional competence as in Canada or Sweden.

These systems have moved away from traditional educational models that often still operate like a heavy bureaucratic production chain, where year after year new reform ideas are placed on top, where in the middle layers of unfinished and incoherent reforms pile up, and where at the bottom schools and teachers are confronted with a mix of regulation and prescription that they cannot make sense of and feel no responsibility for. Their aim is to create a “knowledge rich” education system, in which teachers and school principals act as partners and have the authority to act, the necessary information to do so, and access to effective support systems to assist them in implementing change.

Of course, everywhere education is a knowledge industry in the sense that it is concerned with the transmission of knowledge; but it is far from becoming a knowledge industry in the sense that its own practices are being transformed by knowledge about the efficacy of its own practices.

What are the limitations of the current education models in Latin America to prepare their citizens for high skilled jobs in innovation and R&D. What steps can the countries of the region take to grow in that direction?
Juliana Guaqueta, Harvard University, US

Andreas Schleicher: This is hard to answer but think back to the 1960s, when most of the Latin American countries were ahead of the Asian countries. In the 1960s, Korea had the level of GDP of Afghanistan and was 21st among the 30 OECD countries in terms of the proportion of adults with tertiary qualifications.

When comparing today’s 25-34-year olds, Korea is placed third among the 30 OECD countries. Many factors helped Korea do better than Latin American countries that started from a low base. Perhaps most importantly, society and educators in Korea never tolerated the kind of systemic and structural barriers that have hindered learning and reinforced inequities in Latin America. When demand for education began to outpace supply, students were not sent home.

Instead, class size and schooling hours were extended. Parents were ready to complement public provision with high levels of private investment into learning beyond school. The incentives driving these reforms forward were merit-based learning opportunities, where progress depended on what children were able to do, nor where they came from. Labour-market signals that put qualifications first offered a high degree of social-mobility to the skilled, enabling them to return their educational investment to society and the economy.

Is the lack of maths skills among our young people somehow related to mass immigration and multiculturalism? Unlike their counterparts in Asia, educational authorities in the EU and US seem to spend more time and resources promoting multiculturalism, diversity schemes, and ethnic self-esteem, than with teaching basic arithmetic.
William Myers, London and California, US

Andreas Schleicher: It is always tempting to attribute the performance lag of US students to the challenges which socio-economic disparities and ongoing immigrant inflows pose to the education system. However, among the 41 countries that took part in the latest PISA mathematics assessment, the US only ranks 10th in the proportion of 15-year-olds with an immigrant background, and all countries with larger immigrant shares outperformed the US.

More generally, it would be wrong to attribute the below-average overall performance of US students solely or even largely to the performance of socio-economically disadvantaged groups. In fact, international comparisons also highlight important challenges for the US at the top end of the performance distribution: Only 2 per cent of American 15-year-olds performed at the highest PISA level of mathematics, demonstrating high-level thinking and reasoning skills in statistical or probabilistic contexts to create mathematical representations of real-world situations, using insight and reflection to solve problems, and being able to formulate and communicate arguments and explanation. On average across OECD countries the share of top performers was twice as large and in Belgium, Japan and Korea even four times as large.

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