By Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Few groups are less vulnerable to the coronavirus than school children, but few groups have been more affected by the policy responses to this virus: 1.6 billion students around the world were locked out of their schools, some for more than half a school year. Some of them were able to find their way around closed school doors through alternative learning opportunities, well supported by their parents and teachers. But many remained shut out when their school shut down, particularly those from the most marginalised groups, who didn’t have access to digital learning resources or lacked the support, resilience and engagement to learn on their own.
The learning losses that follow from school closures will throw long shadows over the economic well-being of individuals and nations. Some argue that students will catch up as schools reopen, but that is unlikely to happen if business goes on as usual. Results from OECD’s PISA assessments show few countries with real improvement in student learning outcomes over the last two decades – with no pandemic. So policy-makers will need to redouble their efforts to prevent education from returning to the inadequate and inequitable status quo when things get back to normal.
Fortunately, the highest-performing and most rapidly improving education systems offer important insights for how this can be achieved. PISA tracks their success. At a time of mounting pressure on public budgets, one comforting insight is that, for countries with solid baseline funding in place, neither spending per student nor hours of instruction are strong predictors for the learning outcomes of their education systems. Learning outcomes are always the product of the quantity and the quality of resources, and for most OECD countries, the challenge is not to increase the quantity of resources, but to improve their quality and to better match them with student needs. That’s where PISA can help, with its latest dataset from 2018. When governments have to make choices about how to spend their money most effectively, they can see, through PISA, which group of students (or schools) may be most affected by a crisis, and which policies and practices have the strongest associations with performance, equity and student well-being.
For a start, PISA helps to debunk some popular myths. The poor will always do badly in school. That’s not true: the 10% most disadvantaged students in the four Chinese provinces that took part in PISA had better reading scores than the average student in the OECD area and performed similar to or better than the 10% wealthiest students in 17 of the participating education systems. Immigrants will lower the performance of a country on international comparisons. That’s not true: PISA shows no relationship between the share of immigrants and the quality of an education system, the school systems where immigrant students settle matters a lot more than the country where they came from. Smaller classes always mean better results. That’s not true: countries such as Japan or Singapore combine large classes with high performance – in fact, when high-performing education systems have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they tend to go for the latter. More time spent learning always means better results. That’s not true: hours of language instruction in countries like Estonia or Finland were less than half of what they are in Chile, but students in these countries learn a lot in little time, while in Chile they learn little in a lot of time.
But more importantly, the latest PISA volume – Effective Policies, Successful Schools – highlights characteristics that make high-performing schools and education systems stand out. Some of these are highlighted below.
Remote learning – a reality check
During school lockdowns, digital resources became the lifeline for education and the pandemic pushed teachers and students to quickly adapt to teach and learn on line. But PISA reveals wide disparities both between and within countries in the availability of technology in schools and of teachers’ capacities to use those tools effectively.
Starting with the very basics, on average across OECD countries, 9% of 15-year-old students do not even have a quiet place to study in their homes, and in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand it is over 30%. These tend to be students from marginalised groups: Even in PISA top-performer Korea, one in five students from the quarter of the most disadvantaged schools does not have a place to study at home. The picture is similar when it comes to access to computers. For example, virtually every 15-year-old in advantaged schools in the United States has a computer to work with at home, but only three out of four students in disadvantaged schools have one; and in Peru, it is 88% of students in privileged schools, versus just 17% in disadvantaged schools.
Both to compensate for capacity constraints due to social distancing requirements and as a way to innovate learning, hybrid and technology-supported learning is seen in many countries as the new normal post the pandemic. But again, judging from the equipment that was available in schools a year before the pandemic, schools are not ready for this.
PISA reveals wide disparities both between and within countries in the availability of technology in schools and of teachers’ capacities to use those tools effectively
On the one hand, PISA shows that there was almost one computer at school for every 15-year-old student, on average across OECD countries. Also, the distribution of computers tended to be more equitable in schools than in homes, and in 16 education systems the computer-student ratio was even greater in disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools. However, in many countries school principals said that these computers were not powerful enough, thus hindering learning for one in three students globally. Moreover, remote and hybrid learning depend not just on individual access to computers, but also on powerful online learning platforms. In 2018 just about half of 15-year-olds was enrolled in schools with an effective online learning support platform, according to school principals. Also here there were large variations within and across countries, and especially related to schools’ socio-economic profiles.
Finally, technology is only as good as its use. On average across OECD countries, 65% of 15-year-olds are enrolled in schools whose school principals consider that their teachers have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction. This highlights the enormous learning needs that lie ahead of teachers to get ready for the new normal. This, too, varies considerably between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. In Sweden, for example, the share of teachers with the necessary skills is 89% in advantaged schools but just 54% in disadvantaged schools. Such numbers signal that schools may actually reinforce rather than moderate the disadvantage that comes from individual home backgrounds.
Preparation time seems another issue. While in the four Chinese provinces 9 out of 10 students were enrolled in schools whose principals said that teachers have sufficient time to prepare lessons integrating digital devices, in Japan this was little more than 1 in 10.
Schools’ policies and practices with technology vary too. On average across OECD countries, the most common school practices intended to improve learning through digital devices were: having regular discussions between principals and teachers about the use of digital devices for pedagogical purposes (63%); having written school statements about the use of digital devices (62%); and having a specific programme to prepare students for responsible Internet behaviour (60%). Notably, school guidelines and practices to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices were more often observed in socio-economically advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools, and this is reflected in learning outcomes: Education systems with a higher share of schools with their own written statement about the use of digital devices had generally better learning outcomes in PISA. Moreover some 23% of the differences in equity of learning outcomes across countries are accounted for by the share of schools with their own written statement about the use of digital devices.
Digital resources beyond the emergency
The opportunities digital technologies offer go well beyond a stop-gap solution during the crisis. Digital technology allows for finding entirely new answers to what people learn, how people learn, where people learn and when they learn. Technology can enable teachers and students to access specialised materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats and in ways that can bridge time and space. Alongside teachers, intelligent digital learning systems cannot not just teach students science, but they can simultaneously observe how they study, the kind of tasks and thinking that interest students, and the kind of problems that they find boring or difficult. The systems can then adapt learning experiences to suit personal learning styles with great granularity and precision. Similarly, virtual laboratories can give students the opportunity to design, conduct and learn from experiments, rather than just learning about them.
PISA shows that high performing education systems tended to have better Internet connectivity, even after accounting for national income. Internet bandwidth and speed were also positively correlated with better student performance and even greater equity in learning outcomes, across education systems and after accounting for national income. Importantly, that also holds for schools’ capacity to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices. For example, students in schools where teachers have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction scored five points higher than students in schools where teachers did not have these skills, although this difference was no longer visible after accounting for social background.
Aligning resources with needs
The pandemic has amplified the many inequalities in education systems. Closing these gaps may be the biggest challenge for education policy for the years to come.
PISA shows that, already prior to the pandemic, many schools faced shortages in resources. On average across OECD countries, 27% of students were enrolled in schools whose principal said that learning is hindered by a lack of teaching staff, and shortages of staff tended to be reported far more often by principals of disadvantaged schools (in 42 education systems) and by principals of public schools (in another 42 education systems). In 44 education systems, students attending schools whose principal reported greater shortages of teaching and support staff scored lower in reading.
PISA also shows the percentage of teachers fully certified by an appropriate authority as positively correlated with student performance, even after accounting for national income. Similarly, the percentage of full-time teachers in an education system is associated with greater equity in reading performance in that system, across all countries and economies.
As with shortages of staff, disadvantaged schools were more likely to suffer shortages of material resources (i.e. school infrastructure and educational materials), on average across OECD countries. Disparities in material resources related to schools’ socio-economic profiles were particularly large in six Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Peru) and three Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand).
Shortages of material resources varied also between rural and urban schools (in 25 education systems, rural schools suffered from more such shortages) and between public and private schools (in 39 education systems, public schools suffered from more shortages).
On average across OECD countries, shortages of educational materials were more strongly associated with lower student performance than shortcomings in the physical infrastructure of schools. After accounting for the social background of students and schools, the association between student performance and schools’ physical infrastructure became statistically insignificant; but the association between performance and shortages of educational materials remained negative.
As noted above, in many countries disadvantaged students often do not have a quiet place to study at home. Can schools compensate for that? PISA found that in 20 education systems, attending a school that provides space where students can do their homework was associated with better learning outcomes, even after accounting for the social background of students and schools. The same holds when looking at this across countries: Even after accounting for national income, countries where more students have access to a room at school for doing homework scored better in PISA.
So far so good, but the share of students in disadvantaged schools whose school provides a room for homework was, on average, about seven percentage points smaller than the share of students in advantaged schools whose school provides such a space. So students who could benefit the most from a space dedicated to quiet study in school are less likely to have access to that. In the same vein, PISA shows that advantaged students have more opportunities to learn foreign languages than disadvantaged students do, which gives them access to better jobs and facilitates greater openness towards other cultures.
The pandemic requires schools to rethink the ways in which they use the spaces, people, time and technology. Perhaps the most crucial consideration in this is how to better tailor those resources to the needs of individual students.
It is noteworthy that high-performing education systems showed typically smaller social disparities in the availability and quality of material and digital resources and, in some cases, disadvantaged schools in these countries were actually better equipped than advantaged schools. In high-performing countries, there tended to be also more schools with a specific programme to prepare students for responsible Internet behaviour and, again, social disparities with regard to the availability of those programmes tended to be smaller or were non-existent.
High-performing education systems showed typically smaller social disparities in the availability and quality of material and digital resources and, in some cases, disadvantaged schools in these countries were actually better equipped than advantaged schools
Obviously the influence that teachers and schools have over the allocation of resources is often limited. But PISA suggests there is still a lot that teachers can do to enhance equity. In many countries, retaining students in the same grade for an additional year is still a popular idea to address underperformance. However, PISA shows that countries where grade repetition is more prevalent tend to have poorer and less equitable learning outcomes. Moreover, in many countries, disadvantaged students were more likely to repeat a grade than advantaged students even when they had similar reading scores in PISA.
Even where teachers cannot abandon grade repetition at once, they can do a lot to mediate its adverse effects. Helping students to develop a growth mindset can contribute to this. For a start, the share of students with a positive growth mindset in a country was one of PISA’s best predictors for learning outcomes in that country. Equally important, in the majority of countries students who had repeated a grade in primary or secondary school were less likely than students who had not repeated a grade to believe that their ability and intelligence can develop over time. If students believe that their ability is more or less fixed and unchangeable, why would they make an effort to improve?
Additional support and learning time inside or outside of schools, accompanied by clear, challenging and achievable goals can be part of the answer. Individual plans that allow struggling students to learn the course material differently and sometimes over a longer period of time can help them achieve the standards set for all students. It is also crucial for schools and teachers to provide feedback to students and guide them to develop appropriate strategies to enhance their learning. Positive learning experiences (e.g. persevering after failure and then succeeding) can lead students to trust the importance of investing effort and trying various approaches. That is what a growth mindset is about.
Reconciling choice and equity
In recent decades, several countries have introduced policies to make it easier for parents to send their child to the school of their choice. At the same time, many schools have been granted greater autonomy so that principals, school boards and teachers can assume more responsibility for policies related to resources, the curriculum, assessments, school admissions and discipline. Schools systems in some countries have made it possible for private schools to be integrated into the public education system as government-dependent schools or as completely independent schools that receive a certain amount of public funding.
Proponents of school choice defend the right of parents to send their child to the school of their preference – because of quality, pedagogical approaches, religious denomination, affordability or geographical location. In theory, given students’ diverse needs and interests, a larger number of options in any one school system offers better value by reducing the cost of failure and mismatch, stimulates competition and, in doing so, prompts schools to innovate, experiment with new pedagogies, become more efficient and improve the quality of the learning experience. Proponents argue that the increasing social and cultural diversity of modern societies calls for greater diversification in the education landscape, including by allowing non-traditional providers and even commercial companies to enter the market.
Critics of school choice argue that, when presented with more choice, students from advantaged backgrounds often opt to leave the public system, leading to greater social and cultural segregation in the school system. At the macro level, such segregation can deprive children of opportunities to learn, play and communicate with children from different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds which, in turn, threatens social cohesion.
PISA shows that, on average across OECD countries and in 39 education systems, students in privately managed schools performed better than students in public schools, an advantage that ranged from 19 score points in Korea to 102 points in Brazil. However, after accounting for the social background of students and schools, students in public schools scored higher than students in private schools, on average across OECD countries. So what may be an advantage to individual parents does not equate to an advantage for education systems. At the same time, countries with a higher share of schools that compete with two or more schools was weakly but positively associated with learning outcomes, even after accounting for national income.
Not surprisingly, students in academically selective schools scored higher, on average across OECD countries, even after accounting for social background. However, for education systems as a whole, the share of academically selective schools was unrelated to the performance of education systems. In fact, countries with fewer academically selective schools tended to show greater equity in student performance. Furthermore, across OECD countries, increases in the share of students attending schools where admission is never based on the student’s record of academic performance between 2009 and 2018 were related to improvements in equity. In education systems with greater equity in education, students are also sorted or tracked at later ages into different education programmes.
What matters are smart policies that maximise the benefits of choice while minimising the risks, and establishing a level playing field for all providers to contribute to the education system
School choice, in and of itself, seems to neither assure nor undermine the quality of education. What matters are smart policies that maximise the benefits of choice while minimising the risks, and establishing a level playing field for all providers to contribute to the education system. If well-crafted and based on agreed framework conditions, school-choice policies can help school systems deliver education tailored to a diverse student population, while limiting the risk of social segregation. When market mechanisms are introduced or expanded in education systems, the most productive role of public policy shifts from overseeing the quality and efficiency of public schools to ensuring that oversight and accountability arrangements are in place to guarantee that every child benefits from accessible, high-quality education.
Building strong foundations
Last but not least, the foundations for educational success are laid early. A strong beginning in early learning establishes neural pathways that are more difficult to develop later, and research has shown the many benefits of pre-primary education in promoting the development of cognitive, language and numeracy skills, especially amongst the least advantaged students.
Generally, this has been an area of progress. Between 2015 and 2018, the share of 15-year-old students who had attended pre-primary school for three years increased in 41 countries. Importantly, students who had attended pre-primary education for longer scored better in PISA than students who had not attended pre-primary education – at least up to a point (the relationship between attendance at pre-primary education and student achievement was U-shaped, after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile).
Despite this advantage, in 68 out of 78 education systems with comparable data, students who had not attended pre-primary education were much more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged and enrolled in more disadvantaged schools at the age of 15. This highlights how access to pre-primary education often reinforces educational disparities. Even ensuring pre-primary attendance for all students does not guarantee equitable learning outcomes: PISA results show that in countries where more students had attended pre-primary education for at least two years but less than three, students’ socio-economic profile was more strongly related to their performance at the age of 15. This suggests that advantaged students tend to benefit more than disadvantaged students from their time in pre-primary education – or that they were enrolled in higher quality pre-primary institutions. So when expanding pre-primary education, greater care must be taken to shift the emphasis from access to quality and from care to education.
Every three years PISA reminds us that universal high-quality education is an attainable goal, that it is within our means to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one. The highest performing and most rapidly improving education systems show that the task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable. After the pandemic, and in the face of tight public budgets, policy-makers need to redouble their efforts to raise quality and equity in education. Our schools today will be our society and economy tomorrow. Without the right skills, people will end up on the margins of society, technological progress will not translate into economic growth, and countries risk losing the social glue that holds together democratic societies.
Educators and policy-makers need not just to look forward, but also outward, and PISA provides the tools for that
In doing so, educators and policy-makers need not just to look forward, but also outward, and PISA provides the tools for that. The difference between education systems that are open to the world and ready to learn from and with other experiences, and those that feel threatened by being exposed to alternative ways of thinking and working is likely to be a key differentiator in the educational progress that we will see around the world. The world is indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals and nations which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change. The task of governments is to help education systems rise to this challenge.
- PISA 2018 Results (Volume V): Effective Policies, Successful Schools
- Learn more about PISA
- The shadows of the coronavirus education crisis
- Lessons for education during the coronavirus crisis
- The OECD coronavirus (COVID-19) policy hub